There are few basic rules that can help anybody to make better landscape photography. It does not matter which camera you have although you have more control with a DSLR.
I saw few fantastic shots made with a mobile phone as well as with the best Nikon, or Canon, on the market. Composition plays a big role of course. Colours are as important as lines and focus.
The perfect photo is a combination of many variables, but is out there the perfect photo?
I don’t think so, and this is what I love of photography, the awareness that perfection does not exist and everything can be improved and changed
Lines and path
Lead-in lines are a very clever visual way that can be used to help the viewers’ eye through the scene and give your images a greater sense of depth. For landscape photography there are a range of scenic elements that can be used as lead-in lines including walls, fences, rivers, streams, paths and roads.
To incorporate them successfully into your landscape shots the best way to use lead-in lines is to have them starting at the bottom of the frame, or within the bottom-third of the shot. The correct use will help to have better landscape photography
They should then extend into the scene as far as possible so the eye is drawn from the front of the scene and to the back of it.
A common mistake is to position what should be a lead-in line across the frame. Doing this creates more of a visual barrier than a lead-in line, and should be avoided at all costs.
Lead-in lines is a technique used in this photo to help the eye moving into the shed
In this photo, made in the Kinchega National Park, the outback of Australia, the platform leads you into the woodshed, there is a definite path to follow.
You can read more about this powerful technique in this Lead-in Photography Tutorial.
Path and statement
The path always helps the viewer to navigate into the photo. I like to position the statement of the photo at the end of the path. If it is sunset I usually compose my photo with the sun around the end of the path. It makes the landscape photo so immediate to read
The path that takes you to the sunset
The photo above, made in the Australian desert, would be flat without the sun at the end of the train rail
Rule of thirds
Down to the real basic. This is most probably the first rule we have all learnt. The monitor of most cameras have nowadays the integrated grid to easy the composition of the photo.
Try to position the most important part of your photo where the lines cross. One tip I can add here is that I consider more important the left side of the photo as our eyes tend to read an image from left to right. If I need or want to add an orientation to the photo, that is usually the direction I take
Rule of thirds grid
The rule of thirds was used on this photo to highlight the Luna Park face (red circle), however, to add more dynamism to an otherwise flat picture, I decided to include two tourists on the right side (yellow circle). Now just think the same photo with the face in the centre or without the two people. Very different, less dynamic
Include foreground interest
Foreground interest is another trick that helps draw the eye into the scene and have better landscape photography. But rather than leading the eye through the shot like a lead-in line, foreground interest acts as a visual stepping stone into the shot.
It works simply by filling empty space in the foreground that would otherwise result in a dull landscape shot. But don’t just throw anything into the foreground and hope for the best.
Foreground interest should be an object that’s relevant to the entire scene.
Fishermen as foreground interest
In this shot the fishermen are the point of interest to an otherwise usual landscape photography of the pier.
As well as people, potential objects for use as foreground interest in a landscape could include rocks, foliage, water, mill stones or even parts of elements such as a section of wall.
When composing a shot make sure there’s no litter in the foreground.
Rocks are used in this foreground
Horizon lines and tripod
Exposure times are often too slow to handhold the camera, most often due to the combination of low ISO for maximum image quality and narrow aperture for a large depth-of-field, so you’ll need to use a tripod.
Even if you can achieve all the necessary camera settings and still handhold the camera, it still pays to use a tripod.
Because it will lead to more considered compositions. Using a tripod will slow you down, meaning you’re less likely to snap away then quickly move onto the next shot with little thought. Setting up a tripod is a simple process, essentially just extending the legs and making sure it’s firmly positioned.
However, there are a couple of things you can do to ensure best practice. The first sections that should be extended are the thickest ones closest to the head, then the middle sections and finally the thinnest sections if necessary. The fatter leg sections are always the most stable, so these should be used first.
Only extend the centre column if the legs are fully extended. Once the tripod’s set up, ensure it’s firmly positioned by pushing down on two of the legs. Adjust individual leg length if necessary.
You can read more on how to use a tripod in this tutorial
As said, the tripod is an important part of a still photo. Another part you may consider buying is a remote shutter release. You can even use apps on your mobile which are free or costs just few dollars.
Nikon and Canon have both wireline and wireless ones, usually more expensive. You can also try no-names from Ebay, they may work great and very cheap too.
If you do not have one, set a shutter release timer of at least 2 seconds, although 5 seconds is suggested. This will make sure that your camera is not going to shake.
Exposure : 6 sec at f/18, 24mm, ISO 100
Expose correctly the entire photo
One of the biggest problems you’ll face with better landscape photography is successfully exposing for all parts of the scene. Quite often the difference between the amount of light coming from the sky and the foreground is so great that when you expose for one, detail in the other may be lost.
Most of the photographers will say that the camera is not as important, the composition is. I agree partially to it, otherwise I would not be able to explain why photographers invest so much money in gear.
By experience, if you have a full frame camera the photo will keep more details even in the over/under exposed sides of the photo, that details that you can take back in post production. Nowadays the Sony camera tend to have a greater dynamic range
Other times unfortunately not even the best camera will help you.
One solution is to use a polarising filter on your lens that will dark your sky, the main source of light, and it will remove reflections from the water as well.
Alternatively shot three RAW exposures of the scene. Since the camera is attached to a tripod there is no movement between each shot taken, so they can be successfully blended together in post-processing. The first shot taken is at the camera’s recommended exposure using evaluative metering. The second is 1 (or 2) stop(s) overexposed, and the third 1 (or 2) stop(s) underexposed. Set the ISO to 100 for a cleanest image.
The blend can be done using layers in Photoshop or with a technique called HDR.
I used to process HDR quite a bit and most of the time with great results. The most important thing is to go for a natural result without saturating colours and increasing contrast, and this is a tip for any kind of photo, not just HDR.
Nowadays I tend to use HDR much less, just because I can get more details in my photos from the over/under exposed areas. I can take these out in Lightroom working on the shadows and highlights. This is one of the reason I decided to buy a full sensor camera (Nikon D610)
There are many software for HDR, even Photoshop and Lightroom can do it. When I do, I use Photomatix and I am really happy with it.
Control the focus
With the camera firmly attached to a tripod and the camera set to aperture priority at a narrow setting such as f/16, there’s one more important task that must be completed to ensure sharpness from the front of the scene all the way through to the back. And quite simply, it’s focusing – what mode to use and where to actually focus.
The thing about focusing for landscapes is that if you get it wrong you could end up with large areas of blur.
Control the focus
You can either
- focus on the important part of your landscape and recompose the photo. Remember to lock the focus (see How to have a correct focus article for more info)
- focus manually so you can choose the point of focus, even if it’s outside of the focus point area in the camera’s viewfinder.
In both cases the focus will he locked at the desired point, with no risk of changing unless you move the focusing ring on the lens.
To maximise sharpness in landscapes, you should focus one-third of the way into the scene. That’s not the frame, but the distance from the front of the shot to the back. Combining this with the narrow aperture setting (F/16 or over) is what gives you front to back sharpness, which is a standard feature of landscape photography.
Do not over process the photo
I like the photo to stay as natural as possible. I am not talking about bins or people removed from the picture. Landscape photography is art, it is not a documentation of a place as such.
I am referring here mostly to colours and contrast. Sometime I see beautiful photos with the colours so saturated that I just want to move on and forget about. Even the contrast should have a limit, otherwise the picture becomes a cartoon.
Why worsen an otherwise beautiful photo?
Yes, there are many things to remember and lots of details, but once in the process it will be business as usual.
An interesting thing is that you will end up doing less photos as more time is required, but guess what, match better photos, quality over quantity.