If you’re anything like me, there will be plenty of occasions when you’ve seen a fantastic view for landscape photography, out in the countryside, and thought, “I bet that’d make a great photo.” Whipping out your camera to take a shot, you quickly find the resulting photo is somewhat underwhelming! Does that sound familiar?
On the surface, landscape photography seems as if it should be one of the simplest genres to have a go at – after all, we’re just shooting the world around us. Of course, experience often tells us otherwise.
Don’t be put off though. I’ve got loads of great tips to help make your landscape shoots more successful.
What Is Landscape Photography?
Landscape photography is a broad church. You’ve only got to look at the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition to see it can cover almost anything, from sweeping vistas to closer views and urban settings too.
The type of subject you choose to shoot may depend on where you live and the sort of places you visit. Most of my tips are applicable to any location, so delve in and see which of them you can use for your next landscape shoot.
Choosing Your Location
The location you choose for your landscape photography will depend on many things. You may need to shoot close to home, or you could be planning the holiday of a lifetime to a stunning location. Landscape photos can be taken almost anywhere – it doesn’t need to be expensive!
Research Your Destination Before You Leave Home
With the internet at our fingertips, researching great locations has never been easier, but don’t overlook resources closer to home.
If you’re looking for advice on beautiful holiday locations, why not ask friends and family where they recommend? They don’t need to be photographers either – appreciating stunning scenery is something anyone can do, with or without a camera.
If you’re after online resources, the Lonely Planet website is a great place to start. You can search for the sort of location you’d like to visit and learn about the best destinations in any country. There are endless travel websites out there so don’t be afraid to search online for ideas.
Look for Inspiration
A good starting point is to check out the sort of places you’d like to visit in the country/area you’re visiting. Just typing the country or city’s name into Flickr, Google, 500PX, Instagram or Pinterest will bring up lots of suggestions.
How much detail you want to go into is a personal thing. Some people like to know exactly what they’re going to find, and where the best photo spots are before they leave home. Others prefer to wing it and see where luck takes them.
Personally, I like to have an idea of the places I want to visit. However, I try not to look at too many images of those locations. That way I don’t go with preconceived ideas about how I might shoot them. I like to try and find my own images, rather than copying those of other photographers.
Don’t Overlook Places Close to Home!
Perhaps you don’t have the budget for a big trip abroad – that’s not a problem either. Think about beauty spots near where you live – is there somewhere to shoot right on your doorstep? It can be really rewarding to visit a local place at different times of the year, to capture it through the seasons.
Handy Tools for Planning a Landscape Shoot
So you’ve chosen your location and want to know more about the specifics. There are some really useful apps you can use to refine your ideas. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great app for planning the perfect time of day to shoot. The time of day affects the lighting conditions enormously, so knowing where the sun will be can be really important. More about that later though…
Choice of Camera for Landscape Photography
This is less critical than you might think. With the right skills, you can take amazing landscape photos with an inexpensive camera or smartphone. Equally, it’s possible to produce bad results with a camera that costs a fortune!
If your gear of choice is the fixed camera on a smartphone you might need to be more creative with your compositions. Instead of turning a zoom ring you’ll have to zoom with your feet (otherwise known as walking!) to create your compositions, but the image quality can still be astonishing.
A compact camera can work well too. Traveling light can be a huge bonus if you have to walk a long way to your locations and you’ll probably keep shooting for longer if you don’t have loads to carry.
Of course, for ultimate quality, it helps to have a camera with a larger sensor, be it a DSLR or mirrorless model. That said, if you have some creativity and imagination, good results are possible with any equipment.
Lenses for Landscape Photography
Assuming you have a camera with interchangeable lenses you need to consider which ones to bring along. Some people, myself included, like to shoot with prime lenses. Working with a single focal length makes you think more about your composition. Of course, it can be too limiting in some situations. If your choice of location ties you to one spot (along a cliff edge or hilltop, perhaps) a zoom might be a more practical and safer option!
Whichever route you choose to take, it’s worth considering the type of landscape image you’re aiming to take. Let’s look at the options…
Wide Angle Lenses
Landscape photographers traditionally love wide angle lenses – anything up to about 35mm. A short focal length allows you to cram loads of the landscape into your photo and can give a real wow factor. Be wary of super-wide lenses though. Short focal lengths make objects within the frame seem further apart. This means there’s a danger you’ll end up with photos where you’ve captured a wide view, but everything looks a long way away. A handy tip is to use wide lenses to get really close to something in the foreground, to lead your viewer deeper into the scene.
This could be a standard 50mm prime lens, or a kit zoom lens (usually in the 18 – 70mm range). At these mid-range focal lengths, scenes look much as we see them with our own eyes. You can still fit a fair amount of the landscape in, but without things feeling as distant or extreme as they might with a wide-angle lens. For beginner landscape photographers this can be a really good choice.
While long lenses aren’t an obvious choice for landscape photography, they can be useful for picking out elements of the scene. For instance, you may come across a particularly shapely lone tree and want to isolate it in the landscape. Using a telephoto lens, such as 70-200mm, can be a great way to simplify your shots, rather than trying to cram too many elements into the frame.
A sturdy Tripod
Traditionally landscape photographers always used a tripod. This is largely because, to maximize the depth of field in your photos, a small aperture (perhaps f14) is necessary. This means shutter speeds can become quite slow and a tripod is necessary to keep the camera still.
These days, the excellent image stabilization in many cameras and lenses can be enough to counteract this, so tripods are not as crucial as once they were.
That said, a tripod can still be an incredibly useful tool. If you choose to use an ND filter (see filters below), exposures can stretch into several seconds or even minutes. In this situation support of some kind is vital. There are other alternatives, such as beanbags and the very compact Platypod, but sometimes it’s just better to go for a tripod.
How to Choose an Ideal Tripod for Landscape Photography?
Buying a tripod is a matter of balancing weight with portability. A sturdy, heavy tripod will give you ultimate stability, but the weight may put you off carrying it at all. Don’t be afraid to visit your local camera store to try them for size. A smaller, lighter tripod will be more portable, but won’t cope with really heavy gear and is less rigid in windy conditions.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. My preferred tripod is the Three Legged Thing ‘Brian’. It extends to a good height and is sturdy enough to support a massive 14kg of gear. It also folds up small and only weighs less than 1.5kg. It’s a fairly pricey model but I was prepared to accept that as I will willingly carry Brian around with me.
Many photographers buy several tripods before they get one that really suits their needs. This results in much-wasted money, so it’s worth saving a little longer to buy the best you can, buying only once!
Related Article: Best Travel Tripods
Filters for Landscape Photography
With many types of photography, you can recreate the effect of filters in post-processing software. However, there are some types of filter that cannot be replicated, and it’s best to get the shot right in camera if you can. Let’s take a brief look at the main types of filter you may want to try for landscape photography.
Circular Polarising Filter
This is the one type of filter whose effect cannot be replicated in post-processing. It has two main purposes – to remove reflections from non-metallic surfaces and to deepen the saturation of certain colors, namely red, green and blue.
It’s worth saving to buy a good polariser rather than starting off with a cheap one, as you really do get what you pay for.
Graduated Neutral Density (ND) Filter
This type of filter comprises clear glass (or sometimes plastic) on one half and a grey shading on the other half. You place it over your lens to shade the sky (usually the brightest part of any landscape photo) and even out the exposure between light and dark areas. They come in several different strengths and with both soft and hard graduations. While they’re a handy tool, a similar effect can be added later in Lightroom, Photoshop and other programmes.
Neutral Density Filter
This is a solid grey filter, which effectively acts as a pair of sunglasses for your camera. The darkest ND filters cut out huge amounts of light, allowing you to take long exposure photography. This allows water and cloud movement to blur, creating a beautiful, soft effect. If you’re working on a budget, a piece of welding glass can offer the same effect for a much lower price!
Other Accessories for Landscape Photography
We’ve covered most of the accessories you’re likely to need for landscape photography, but there are a few small items you might want to consider:
Some lenses come with a hood, but cheaper ones often require you to buy one separately. A lens hood’s main purpose is to stop rays of light catching the lens at the wrong angle, causing flare in your pictures. Don’t forget though, they are also a great way to keep the rain off your lens if the weather turns against you!
Lens Cloth And/Or Rocket Blower
These can be an absolute godsend in wet or dusty conditions and can be bought very cheaply. Use a rocket blower to remove any dust or debris from your lens, while raindrops or sea spray can be gently taken off with a cloth.
If you’re shooting at slow shutter speeds, a remote release can help avoid camera shake when you press the shutter button. Again, unbranded versions of these can be bought for most cameras from eBay and Amazon fairly cheaply. Alternatively, you can use the self-timer on your camera. Some newer cameras can also be controlled using an app on your smartphone – check your camera manual to see if this is available for your model.
So, you’ve got all your camera gear sorted, but don’t forget to look after yourself!
If you’re going to be shooting in cold weather, layer up your clothing to trap warm air and allow you to remove layers as necessary. Don’t forget a waterproof layer too. There’s nothing more likely to send you home before you’ve got your shot than being too cold or wet!
Related Article: Best Underwater Cameras
Equally, important is sunscreen in sunny weather, so you don’t burn. It would be prudent to ensure you have a drink and a snack with you too. If you don’t, you can guarantee the best light will appear just after you’ve packed up through hunger or thirst!
When Is the Best Time for Landscape Photography?
This will depend on what sort of image you’re after, but here are a few tips…
Choice of Season
The season which perhaps offers the fewest landscape photography opportunities is the summer. With the sun high in the sky, the light can be harsh, and the nicest light tends to come at antisocially early or late hours. Autumn can be wonderful for warm colors in the landscape, winter can be wonderfully dramatic, and spring brings lots of floral colors.
Ultimately, any landscape can be shot successfully at any time of year, so why not pick a location and shoot it every month?
Time of Day
Most seasoned landscape photographers will tell you the best time of day is the ‘golden hour’. This is the hour around dawn and sunset when the shadows are long and the light has a wonderful glow about it.
If you’re aiming to shoot in the golden it would be wise to arrive early and plan to stay later too. The best light can sometimes come when you’re not expecting, especially if the cloud cover is changing quickly.
If you’re shooting a seascape, do remember to check the tide times. There’s nothing particularly photogenic about acres of mud! Knowledge of tide times can also be handy if you are shooting in a location where the incoming tide might cut you off completely.
Using the Best Type of Light
For most of the day, our light source, the sun, is quite high in the sky, meaning the land is evenly illuminated. This is great for easy exposures, but not especially dramatic. Look out for times when the sun is illuminating the landscape from the side (usually when the sun is lower in the sky near sunrise and sunset) or look for places where you have backlighting. This sculpts the land much more effectively, often producing stunning results.
Don’t Be a Fair-Weather Photographer
Modern cameras are more than capable of dealing with rough weather so don’t feel you have to stay indoors if the weather turns bad. Stormy skies or snow can be wonderfully dramatic and are infinitely more interesting than plain blue skies.
Providing you have dressed appropriately, there’s nothing to stop you continuing to shoot if the weather turns. If you’re really worried about your camera getting wet there are plenty of rain covers on the market which will keep it dry. OpTech makes very modestly priced covers which come in packs of two and can fold up into a corner of your bag for rainy days. At a pinch, you can even use the disposable shower caps you find in hotel rooms!
The Decisive Moment
Landscape photography may seem like a leisurely pursuit, but conditions can change very quickly, so it pays to be alert. Henri Cartier Bresson talked about the ‘decisive moment’ in street photography but this can be just as true when you’re out in the landscape. That moment when the sun streaks across the land, creating long shadows can be very fleeting, so be ready to press your shutter button at a moment’s notice!
Camera settings for landscape photography
Finding the right settings for landscape photography can be rather daunting but there are a few critical settings you might want to consider
RAW or JPEG
If your camera will shoot RAW files, it’s worth considering this. A RAW file will give you more flexibility after the shot, especially if the light is very contrasty. Slight overexposures can be rescued in post-processing and you can make more edits (if you wish to) without degrading the image. All RAW files need some processing to bring out the best in them but ultimately it gives you more control over the final image.
If you’d rather avoid doing much (or any) post-processing, then JPEG format is a better choice as the camera gives you a finished image. If you choose to shoot JPEG, expose your pictures carefully to avoid blowing out highlight areas. Many cameras give you the opportunity to shoot the same scene at different exposures so check your user manual for ‘exposure bracketing’ to find out if yours does.
I always recommend landscape photography novices select Aperture mode. This allows you to choose how great the depth of field is (more on this in a moment) while not having to worry about the shutter speed. You can, of course, use fully automatic mode, but here you are giving all the control to your camera!
Aperture Choice for Maximizing Depth of Field
The depth of field is the term used to describe how much of the scene is acceptably sharp and crisp. For a portrait, you may wish to blur the background, to focus your viewer’s attention on the subject. To do this you would use a large aperture, with a small f-number such as f2.8.
In landscapes, it is often more desirable to ensure as much of the scene as possible is sharply in focus. To do this you should select a small aperture, with a large f-number – say, f11 or f16. More on aperture.
If you want to get really geeky, you can also explore the concept of hyperfocal distance. Here, you select a particular aperture and focus as a set distance to maximize your depth of field.
There are plenty of apps and websites that will help you with this, but I recommend Martin Bailey’s Photographer’s Friend smartphone app. By selecting your camera, aperture and focal length the app does the rest for you, telling you where to focus. It’s currently available for iOS devices, with an Android version on the way.
I would suggest sticking with average or evaluative mode (depending on your camera manufacturer) here. This mode scans the whole scene, setting the exposure accordingly. You can always adjust the settings your camera selects by adding some exposure compensation if necessary.
Given that most landscape photography is fairly static I would recommend single autofocus mode. After all, your subject is unlikely to get up and run away! The only occasion I tend to vary from this is if I’m shooting at a slow shutter speed without a tripod. In that situation, continuous autofocus can help compensate for any small movements you may make as you breathe. More on camera focusing here.
Magical Compositions for Landscape Photography
Composition refers to the visual arrangement of elements within your frame. It is important in any kind of photography but more so in landscape photography. You are tasked with capturing vast landscapes in the 2D format in a way that draws viewers eye to your subject.
Adding a Sense of Depth
In all types of photography, we are trying to capture a three-dimensional form using a two-dimensional medium. In landscape photography, this can be particularly challenging. This is why the scene that leaves you lost for words can look less stunning in a photo.
A good way to avoid this is to try and create depth in your images. When planning your composition, look for interest in more than one zone in the scene. This could be an interesting rock in the foreground, a band of trees in the midground and rolling hills in the background. You don’t necessarily need to fill all three zones with interest, but certainly, aim for a sense of layering.
Don’t Make Your Subject the Center of Attention!
A rookie mistake is to put the main subject of your image slap, bang in the middle of the photo. Occasionally this will work, but it can also lead to a bland composition. A better approach is to place your subject off center.
Imagine for a moment, a grid placed over the scene, with two equally spaced lines of both the horizontal and vertical axis. These lines and the points where they intersect can be great places to place your subject. Because the lines cut the image into thirds this is called the ‘Rule of Thirds’. It’s a guideline more than a fixed rule but well worth trying.
Symmetry – Good or Bad?
If your photo has a definite horizon, it’s often a good idea to place it on one of the thirds. However, there are times when symmetry can work, placing the horizon on the center line of the picture. This is particularly worth trying if you’re shooting a scene with reflections.
Leading lines do exactly what the name suggests – they lead your eye through the image. This could be a line in the most literal sense, such as a footpath. Or it could be something else, such as a line of trees or a series of other objects in the landscape.
Use of Light and Shade
This one ties in with the direction of the light falling on your scene. Look out for pools of light on the landscape, often created by sunshine through the clouds, or the way shadows can sculpt the lay of the land.
Have a Focal Point
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty of a scene and forget that the human eye needs a subject to alight upon. Aim to have a focal point in your images – perhaps a lone tree, or a geographical feature, such as a river or lake. This way you show your viewer where you would like them to look.
How Much Sky Should I Include?
This can be a tricky one and often depends on the weather conditions. If you have a dramatic sky, say storm clouds or white puffy clouds on a deep blue sky, you might choose to make a feature of the sky. However, if it’s a grey day and the sky is a bland shade of white, it’s best to include as little of it as you can. Don’t overlook the possibility of excluding the sky altogether!
It’s worth experimenting with the placement of the horizon at different levels in your image. The golden rule though is to make sure your horizon is always straight. It only needs to be a few degrees off and it’ll make your viewer feel uncomfortable. You can buy cheap spirit levels to slot into your camera’s hot shoe, although many cameras have an electronic level built in these days. Failing that, adjusting the horizon in post-processing is very simple if you do get it wrong.
Read next: Best Photo Editing Apps
Point of View
Don’t forget to shoot from different positions and heights to see what effect that has. Photographing from a worm’s eye view can change vastly a composition, compared to a photo taken from head height.
Read this comprehensive guide for more on general composition tips
Making the Best of Your Photos When You Get Home
If you’ve chosen to shoot in RAW format, you’ll need to do some post-processing when you get home to bring out the best in them. RAW files often look rather flat, so you’ll probably need to increase the contrast and sharpening a little. RAW files also give you the opportunity to rescue any overexposed areas if you got your exposure settings wrong, much more so than in JPEG files.
All that remains now is to get you out there shooting your own landscape photos. Remember, with digital cameras there’s no direct cost associated with taking lots of shots so don’t be afraid to experiment.
We would love to see the results of your next shoot, so why not join PhotoBlog and start sharing your landscape photography with all of us? PhotoBlog allows you to share photos and make then part of your own story. Most importantly, we have a built-in audience eager to make real connections.
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