Stefan Schäfer always knew he wanted to work in a creative field. At age 18, he started his own business as a graphic designer, and he came to photography after a friend invited him to a photoshoot and he found himself fascinated by the camera technology. Eventually, Stefan found his way to landscape and cityscape photography, which is now his full-time occupation.
At some point, I wanted to pass on my knowledge and give something back to people who were new to photography. So on a whim, I started my own YouTube channel. I now have over 44,000 followers and upload two videos a week about photography and image processing. I also have my own online store where I sell video training on image processing in various programs and offer my own photo trips and workshops. Several times a year I take a small group to Dubai, New York, or the Faroe Islands.
As a landscape and travel photographer, you go to many exciting places. Some places are so remote that you can only visit them once in a lifetime. The weather of course plays a big role in how eye-catching your photos will be in the end. With a dramatic sky where the clouds are illuminated by the sun, you’ll be able to capture a nice moment. That should always be the goal of a true landscape photographer. But what can you do if the weather isn’t as good as you want it to be? Just go home and give up on your shots from a very expensive trip? That’s out of the question for me! With Luminar 4, Skylum has developed software that supports me as a photographer by exchanging a gray and boring sky for something unique of my choosing. In this article, I would like to show you how you can optimally use the sky in different scenes to get the most out of your photos.
Tip 1: Mountains
When I go to the mountains, I often have to deal with colder temperatures. Good preparation is therefore particularly important, and the equipment also plays an important role. In particular, I try to carry the batteries close to my body to increase the battery life. A stable tripod is just as important, especially in windy situations. And while I’m on the topic of equipment, you’re probably wondering how I use filters in the mountains. After all, there’s no straight horizon and a gradient filter would darken the mountains. Of course that is correct, but it depends on the situation.
If the mountains are illuminated by the sun, they can be darkened with a gradient/ND filter to balance the exposure and get more drama in the upper half of the image. But what can you do when the sky is just gray and cloudless? Well, you still have several options:
- Even a gray sky can work well in some photos if you adjust the look or maybe even make a black and white picture out of it.
- Less sky, more foreground!
- Replace the sky afterward.
If you opt to replace the sky, Luminar 4 is the perfect tool for this. You can add a new sky to a shot in seconds — not hours like it would in Photoshop. I recommend you only use your own skies so you know what you’re working with. Create a well-stocked library of self-photographed skies that you can use in such situations. Important: Mark your images as composites!
The nice thing about a mountain landscape is that you can work particularly well with low-hanging clouds that get stuck in the peaks. This gives you a lot of drama in the photo and the mountain comes into its own. I was in Patagonia a few weeks ago, a place with one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, where the Torres del Paine mountain group is the center of the national park of the same name. It’s an absolute dream for any landscape photographer that I can only recommend! In Torres del Paine, you get the most magnificent mountainscapes you can imagine!
Tip 2: City Skylines
Cityscape photography is actually a completely different genre with its own charms. For me, big cities with impressive skylines are my favorite destinations. A city that never sleeps like New York, a modern metropolis like Dubai, a city steeped in history like Berlin… each has its own charms. But what unites them is that when it gets dark and the lights start to shine, these cities look their most beautiful. The colors come into their own, you can play with the light trails from cars, and the slower shutter speed means you don’t see any disturbing tourists. The special attraction is a view of the city from above. If you have the opportunity to take photos from a skyscraper, you get a view that very few people get to see. And that is exactly what makes a photo so exciting and attractive for the viewer: seeing something new.
When I have a choice, however, I don’t try to go to the top because the middle ground is the best. If you just take pictures looking down, the city doesn’t look as huge as it does if some skyscrapers soar higher. But how can you get to such high-rise buildings? This is the most difficult question for many. And the answer is no less simple. You have to make good connections with property managers or know someone who lives in the building in question. Good contacts therefore play an important role.
Of course, the sky also plays an important role in cityscape photography. You have the most beautiful light at sunrise and sunset, as well as at the blue hour. Then you have the perfect mix of colors in the sky and in the lights of the city. If the city lights come on too late and the sky is already too dark, you can also work with so-called timeblending. This involves taking several photos of exactly the same image section that you later combine in Luminar via a Luminosity mask or different blend modes.
Tip 3: Lakes
Lakes have the great advantage that you can work with water. If the water is calm enough, nature is perfectly reflected and you can use the lake for a symmetry shot. This simplifies the composition, and yet such images are extremely attractive. It’s best to check the weather report to see if there’s a chance for no wind. For me, the most beautiful scenery is a combination of a lake in the foreground and a mountain in the background. We have some of these scenes in Bavaria that are very photogenic. Some of them are well known and overcrowded. But away from the popular photo spots, you can find some quiet, lonely, and lovely locations. It usually helps to set off a few hours early and explore the area on foot. If you walk around the world with your eyes open, you’ll also find new, unknown photo spots.
Lakes are of particular interest to me in the golden hour. When the sky gets color and everything is bathed in a golden shimmer, the light becomes very soft. These are the best moments for taking pictures. The blue hour, on the other hand, becomes uninteresting because there’s no artificial light like in cities. But the sky plays a much bigger role in such moments. Especially when you work with a reflection, the sky makes up 50% or more of the photo. That’s why you should return to a place often to catch the perfect sky. But if you’re somewhere where you can’t get back so quickly, then a sky replacement can help. This becomes all the more difficult if you work with reflections, however. After the simple sky replacement, you need to create another layer with the sky and mirror it. Then you should try experimenting with different layer blending methods such as Soft Light. Finally, you need to mask out the sky where it doesn’t reflect, i.e. anywhere outside the water.
Tip 4: Forests
Photography in forests has its own character. In forests, the sky is often not visible or only barely visible. Therefore, this type of landscape photography is particularly suitable for “bad” weather when the sky is gray. But you can often achieve a great moody look with the help of fog or moisture. So take advantage of any form of weather. If you go straight into the forest, you’ll have some challenges with composition. A forest often looks very messy due to the many trees. So it’s not easy to find a nice clean scene. Therefore, detail shots can sometimes help. But use the sun when it shines through the trees and a great spectacle of light illuminates the scene. I always like to look at such photos. Since I live in Germany, of course, I mainly photograph the forests here in the region. I was particularly impressed by the Rakotzbrücke Devil’s Bridge in Kromlau. Even if it’s not a classic forest photo, I would like to mention it here. The bridge is currently being extensively restored, but you’ll soon be able to take photos of it again. Please do not try to cross it!
Tip 5: Night Sky
For me, as I mentioned above, the best time to take pictures is at sunrise or sunset. But of course, you can still take great landscape photos at night. Anyone who has ever photographed the starry sky knows what beauty you can see there. A good night photo requires a strong composition with a good foreground. Too often, I see photos where there’s only the sky. I personally find that relatively boring. So go to your intended photo point during the day and prepare yourself well. Keep in mind that it can get cold pretty quickly overnight. I like to take landscape pictures at the blue hour with a low ISO. Later on when photographing the night sky, we have to turn the ISO up further so the shutter speed doesn’t become too slow; otherwise, the stars will blur. I can re-assemble these photos later in the image editing process and get the optimal result. The situation is similar to aurora lights. In image editing, I try to saturate the shades of green a little more and turn down the luminance so the colors come into their own.
The northern lights can be photographed particularly well in the northern countries in wintertime. I recommend trying it.
Final Thoughts – What’s Important In Landscape Photography
Light! Light is the biggest factor that makes a good picture. That’s why most landscape photographers prefer to take pictures outdoors at sunrise or sunset when the sun shines a beautiful soft and golden light on the landscape. Consider all the landscapes available to you and look at the weather forecast beforehand. There’s a suitable scene for every type of weather. I wish you lots of fun taking pictures and editing them!
Try Luminar 4 free for a whole week. Just got to www.skylum.com, download a trial, and check out Luminar for yourself. If you like the results, don’t forget to use the discount code SLRLOUNGE to save $10 on the full purchase price.
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