10 Tips for Stunning Landscape Photography
The following article is a guest post by Alf Bailey, a photographer from Cheshire, UK. More of his work can be found at www.alfbaileyphotography.co.uk; and as always, we welcome your comments below.
Location: Lake District, Cumbria, UK
Camera: Nikon D90, Lens: Nikkor 18-55mm, Time: 14.31, Date: 7th January 2009, Format: JPEG, ISO; 200, Exposure: 1/500, F Stop: 8.0, Metering: Matrix, Aperture Priority, Tripod
I started taking photographs just 3 years ago. I was your typical “finger over the lens, cut the subjects head off, fumbling photography buffoon until a friend of mine showed me some of his images; and I was that inspired, I had to try it for myself. Then I got the bug, the photography infection set in, and I’ve since enjoyed every minute of it. These days I take some, what I would consider “decent photographs , and I’m very pleased to pass on the little bits of knowledge that I have gained (sometimes the hard way) over the last few years, so that you can do likewise. The following is an overview of what can be a very in-depth and sometimes complex subject.
1. Basic Equipment
There are whole books on cameras and lenses, but I’m going to keep it simple. Choose the best you can afford, but don’t be tempted to buy a really expensive camera and then fit it with a very average lens. The results will be ¦.well ¦very average. Better to buy an average camera with a first rate lens, as the lens is the bit that does the most important work. I can personally recommend the Sigma 10-20mm and the Nikkor 16-35mm . Both are brilliant wide angle landscape lenses.
You will also need the following: a good sturdy tripod (carry it in the car, never leave home without it), a cable release, a carrying case that will protect your gear, a grad filter and a UV filter, lens cleaning cloth, a pair of wellies, waterproof trousers and jacket and a good road atlas or better still, an ordinance survey map of the area you intend to visit. Oh and don’t forget your packed lunch. Photography can be hungry work and the chances are you will end up miles away from anywhere that sells food.
[rewind: Learn HDR Photography from SLR Lounge]
The only rule I tend to try and follow is the “rule of thirds. I nearly always find that placing a subject close to the third intersections, works well, even better if you can get a near and far focus point in diagonal corners of the thirds (See “Old Red and The Lighthouse” image below) but I will say a bit more about composition in section 5.
Location: Landwynne Island, Anglesey, North Wales UK
Camera: Nikon D700, Lens Nikkor: 50mm F1.4G, Time: 18.46, 3rd April 2010, Format: JPEG, ISO: 200, Exposure: 1/125 sec, F Stop: 16.0, Metering: Matrix, Aperture Priority, Hand Held
There are exceptions to the rule of thirds and again I will come to that in section 5.
Without doubt, early morning late evening is the very best times to take photographs, the light is much more forgiving, and can be much more dramatic, so be prepared to stay up late or get up early and sometimes both!. That’s not to say that you can’t take photographs in the bright mid-day sun, you can! But it’s far more difficult to achieve good results and I usually tend to avoid these times of day.
Of course a location can be the difference between an average shot and a complete stunner. My advice is, get to know your area, have a look at your local art galleries and online information. Just type in the name of your area into your browser followed by the word “photographs or “Images and you will be surprised at the amount of information that will turn up. Even if you live in a big city, there are parks, rivers, docks, and canals that can all offer great photo opportunities, if you own a car then your only a couple of hours away from some excellent scenery in the UK. Look for bridges, waterfalls, stone circles, windmills, lighthouses, water mills, and even wind turbines for great locations, though the list is endless.
Just a note on SAFETY:
- Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Carry food and water
- Carry suitable clothing for the environment of your intended destination
Things to avoid getting in the frame: your shadow, telephone wires, electricity pylons, cars, litter (coke cans, plastic bags, etc can be a real pain when you notice them later and have to try and clone them out of an otherwise great shot). When taking long exposures, avoid anything that moves, people, ducks, cars etc.
Take your time and remember the following: have a good look through the viewfinder, look in all of the corners, straighten the horizon, zoom in/out for optimum composition, remember the rule of thirds, explore trying to get some foreground detail as well as the main subject, step to the left or right to get rid of your shadow, or merge your shadow with that of a tree etc.
There are of course exceptions to the rule of thirds, but it is important to know and understand the rules before you break them. Some central compositions can be dynamic and powerful (See the “Sun Tower” image below) but think about what you want to achieve when the subject is in the frame. Cropping afterwards is always the second best solution. If your not sure, try it both ways with a centrally composed shot and a shot using the rule of thirds.
Location: – Brenig, North Wales, UK
Camera: Nikon D90, Lens: Sigma 10 – 20mm, Time: 15.49, Date: 9th January 2010, Format: JPEG, ISO: 200 Exposure: 1/350 second
F Stop:16.0, Metering:Matrix, Aperture Priority, Tripod
Above I mentioned, a few obvious features to look for above are lighthouses, water mills, etc but people with an “eye for photography will often be the ones that can find the less obvious features and make a beautiful landscape from them. A lone tree on a hill, a person within the landscape, (See “the Other Photographer” image below) or a section of the landscape that can be selected through your lens and isolated to create another a less obvious landscape with in a landscape (see “One Fell Over”). With time, you will become more aware of everything around you. My wife raises her eyebrows in mock exasperation as I point out “interesting cloud formations and “Dramatic Sky’s as part of our usual conversation in car journeys. Yes, be prepared to bore everyone but other photographers with your newly found enthusiasm for every aspect of the landscape.
Location: Lake Windermere, Lake District Cumbria UK
Camera: Nikon D90, Lens: Sigma 10 – 20mm, Time: 10.05, Date: 12th December 2009, Format: JPEG, ISO: 200, Exposure: 1/5 seconds, F Stop:14.0, Metering: Matrix, Aperture Priority, Tripod
Again I keep it simple, the following settings are typical but variable to different conditions
- RAW format
- Aperture Priority: F11 to F22 (Variable)
- ISO : 200
- Focus : Auto Focus
- Metering : Matrix
- White Balance: Auto
A. Converting to jpeg – If you are not using RAW format for shooting, start now. It is a bit daunting at first, but persevere and you will be rewarded with richer, more colorful images that you have more control over in the processing stage. Try a few different RAW converters until you find one that suits you. You can normally get free trials from the various software producers.
My preference for a RAW converter is Adobe Lightroom, and it is here that I will carry out basic processing and often process the same image 2 to 3 times with different levels of light and color to blend in Photoshop afterwards.
B. Long exposures: This is a great technique for waterfalls, rivers, and oceans. They create a smoothing effect of the water (see “one fell over ) It is vital to remember to use a tripod, cable release or timer mechanism as the slightest movement of the camera will result in a blurred photograph. This is true of all photographs, but particularly long exposures.
I chose “One fell Over as an example for a few reasons. To start with, it shows the smoothing effect on water of the long exposure, it was one of my first long exposures that I was pleased with. It was taken with a relatively inexpensive camera and lens (Nikon D40 with 18-55mm kit lens) and it shows the “landscape within a landscape referred to in section 6.
The settings:Time / Date December 2008 5.50pm, Aperture Priority, Center Weighted Metering, 13 Seconds, F25, Tripod, Cable release
C. Bracketing and multi exposures
Without going into too much detail, the general idea of bracketing your shots is so that all detail can be captured from highlights and shadows that can then be blended in a software program to create a HDR image (explained later in section 9) or manually blended in photoshop.
One common fault when trying to capture a sunset for instance, is blowing the highlights in the sky. The way to avoid this is to mount you camera on a tripod, leaving it free to swivel up and down on the mechanism. Then meter for the sky by holding the metering button on your camera whilst pointing it at the desired average bright part of the sky. Then still holding the meter button down, lower the camera on its tripod, re-compose your shot and press the shutter release button, without moving the camera from that position. Then tighten the tripod levers and take the shot again but without holding the metering button this time. This should result in you having two identical shots, one with the sky exposed correctly and one showing details of the foreground.
It’s a bit tricky holding down buttons and swiveling the camera in the up an down arc motion at first, but definitely worth practicing.
Scale is something worth considering when taking landscape shots. Tt’s not always vital, but there are times when I look at some shots and wonder just how vast the landscape is, as there is nothing within the image that is recognizable to give the image scale.
Consider including, people, tractors, sheep, horses, boats, etc and for foreground scale consider Shells, starfish, flowers. These are just a few examples of the hundreds of things that will add scale and interest to an image. (See “Fishing Therapy”)
A thing to remember about HDR is that not everything looks good as a HDR image, it is easy to get carried away with HDR and bracket every shot you take; but in my experience, this inevitably ends up clogging up your hard drive with hundreds of images that you will never use. So think about what you want to achieve before you start.
There are whole books written on this subject, and it is worth mentioning that if HDR is something you want to pursue seriously, then I recommend reading a book such as “Complete Guide To High Dynamic Range Photography” by Ferrell McCollough. Again I’ll try to keep this infinitely complex subject as simple as possible.
There are a number of ways to produce a HDR image, the most common way is to bracket anything from 3 to 9 exposures, then blend them in a dedicated program such as Photomatix Pro, although some people prefer to use photoshop.
I generally use 5 exposures, 1 EV stop apart. Alternatively, you can use 3 exposures 2 EV stops apart both these settings will cover a 10 EV range and should be sufficient for most scenes.
Things to remember when bracketing images: use a tripod, and use a cable release if possible, (the slightest movement will result in poor results), check your histogram and your LCD monitor for each exposure to make sure the complete range of light levels have been covered. If they haven’t, take another image at + or – the EV level already taken. For example, using 3 exposures at 2 EV spacing as an example, if the most underexposed shot, – 2 EV, still has blown highlights then take another exposure at – 3 EV. Similarly at the other end of the scale, if the most overexposed image, + 2 EV, does not reveal all the shadow details than take another exposure at + 3 EV.
It is a lot simpler using a camera such as a Nikon D700 that will automatically bracket up to 9 exposures, but as described above this can be achieved manually also.
Once you have combined the images in Photomatix, then the fun can begin in the “Tone Mapping or editing section of the program. There are pre-set options to choose from, but my advise is to experiment, try to find similar subject comparisons on-line and check the settings used if possible. Or refer to a book like the one described above. After you have finished editing, you will be left with a fairly bland looking image, I have seen people leave them at this stage as finished products, but they generally look rather flat and need processing in photoshop to bring out all the detail.
Location: Lyn Dinas, North Wales UK
Settings: Camera – Nikon D700, Lens – Nikkor 50mm f1.4G, Tripod, Aperture F14, 0.63 sec, 5 bracketed images 1 EV stop apart, Photomatix Pro 3 HDR software
After Tone Mapping in Photomatix, you will need to complete the process in photoshop to get the best of the HDR effect. At this stage, I will make sure the image is straight and do any necessary cropping. I would also check for blemishes, flys, and anything else that requires cloning out of the image and make the necessary adjustments on a new layer.
Then I will create a layer and from the toolbar choose “Image-Adjustments- Brightness/Contrast” and use the contrast slider to give the image richness and depth. It is worth noting that when you do this, the image can become oversaturated and you will need to flatten the image choosing “Layer/ flatten Image. Then you will have to make another layer and choose “Image- adjustment-Hue/Saturation” and use the Saturation slider very slowly move it to the left to adjust the level of color saturation until you are satisfied it looks to your liking.
After every adjustment, it is important to flatten the image and make a new layer. Most of my highlights and shadows are 85% dealt with in Lightroom, but further adjustments can be made by choosing “Image-Adjustments-Levels. Use the sliders to make the image lighter / darker, but before flattening the image this time, use the eraser tool to erase chosen parts of the image that you want retaining to all or part of it’s original light levels.
For example you may have an image with a bright sky and an adequately exposed foreground. To make the sky darker, you would use the levels slider as described above. To make the whole image darker, you would then use the eraser tool to erase the darkening process in the foreground and so achieve a well balanced lighting for your image. Flatten the image once you are happy and create another layer and choose “Filters from the toolbar. Then choose “Sharpen and Unsharp Mask from the submenu; and after clicking on unsharp Mask you will see 3 sliders, the following settings are generally what I use but are intended just a guideline.
- AMOUNT:133 – 149
- RADIUS:1.5 – 1.9
- THRESHOLD:1 – 2
Images will vary to some degree depending on what equipment has been used, but the above settings generally work for me.
You should now be looking at a sharp, well-defined image with no unsightly smudges or marks. Save the image in a new name, so that if you decide that you want to start again, you will still have the original and won’t have to use the HDR process or a RAW converter over again (although it is important to keep the original Raw File too).
Ok so you’re a happy bunny. You have saved your image, what next I hear you say? Just one more thing I advise, before you send it for printing, or enter it in a competition, or do anything else with it, leave it for 24 hours. The reason why is, you have now been working on this image for some time. Your eyes and your mind have been focused intently on what you have been doing and so can become somewhat oblivious to things, like the amount of saturation for instance.
So step away from your PC, and sleep on it. I have worked on images in the past, and when re-visited the next day, they have looked what I can only describe as hideous. Looking at your creation with fresh eyes will make you your own best critic, and you can then make any final adjustments in confidence.
The last thing I will mention is the enjoyment factor. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than when someone tells you they enjoyed looking at your image, and that goes for anyone, whether it be member of your family or another photographer that you respect. Get some feedback and remember don’t be scared to have a go, don’t be scared to ask advice, (I do that all the time) and enjoy the buzz and the adventure.