Landscape photography is one of the most popular disciplines in our industry, and it’s not hard to see why. Getting started is incredibly simple. Just go outside, find an outdoor scene that speaks to you, and shoot it. Minimal gear, no need for models or other people, just you and your camera. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?
The downside is that the popularity and low price of admission guarantees many other photographers will be specialising in the same discipline, and introducing a sense of “sameness” in the images we see. Uniqueness and individuality of style are important in breaking the mould and creating images that are both captivating and memorable.
Before you can set yourself apart, you need to know the basics, and use them to your advantage.
Let’s discuss twelve tips to vastly improve your landscape photography, and get you on a level playing field.
Plan the Shot Carefully and Ahead of Time
What doesn’t turn out better with a little forethought and planning? Since you’re likely shooting a static scene, you have the ability to plan out exactly what you are trying to accomplish. You can even take some other variables into consideration thanks to tools available to you.
Several apps exist for photographers that allow planning for outdoor shots in advance. These allow you to select a location and even an exact date and time in the future to help you anticipate lighting conditions, or stars and planets placement. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a very popular example. I’ve personally used PhotoPills for several years to plan my milky way shots, and wouldn’t plan a shoot without it.
Additionally, scouting your landscape photography shooting location is always advised. What compositions are available from that particular spot? Are more interesting ones waiting for you a short distance away? Are there any obstructions that you didn’t anticipate during your initial planning?
Take your time and make sure you’re going to be happy with the landscape photography location before you bring all of your gear.
Shoot at the Right Times of Day
When dealing with natural light, there isn’t much difference of opinion on when light quality is at its peak. Most landscape photographers plan their shots during the golden hours, which are the times of the day during the early morning and late evening. Specifically, the golden hour is considered the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset.
The light is warm and touches your surroundings at a lower angle, softening shadows, adding drama and colour, and making for much more compelling landscape photography.
Of course, although the quality of the light is best during these times, it doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot landscapes during the middle of the day. Some photographers do just that if they’re shooting black and white photos, or are looking for contrast in their images.
But shooting when the sun is high in the sky, can cause subjects to be harshly lit, and shadows to be sharp and a bit unforgiving.
In keeping with the theme from the previous tip, it’s important to practice patience when capturing landscape photographs. Conditions change over the course of minutes. A scene that doesn’t appear to be anything special one moment can suddenly become the image you’ve been waiting for.
Landscape photography isn’t a quick, in and out affair. The chances you’ll be able to capture exactly what you envisioned in the first ten minutes are low. Prepare yourself to spend some time with the scene, and you’ll find it easier to stop worrying about the shot and practice the patience you need.
Sunlight and clouds cause lighting to drastically change, and the position of the sun can bathe the landscape in shadows and colours that can hide from you initially. As we discussed before, it’s always a good idea to scout your location ahead of time if possible, at different times of the day. You’ll see what effect the light of the day has on the scene as the sun moves overhead.
Bring the Right Gear
You probably would think we’re talking about camera gear, but we’ll discuss that below in a moment. I’m talking about everything else, the things you may not think of ahead of time when heading out “in the field”.
When it comes to landscape photography, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be at your location for awhile. It’s important to bring along items that will make your shoot a more comfortable experience.
In addition to your actual photography gear such as camera body (or bodies), lenses, tripods, and filters, bring along a backpack or bag of other essential items as well. This is especially important if your landscape photography location is in any way remote.
What would you take if you were going on a short hike? Do you have a backup plan in case your phone’s cellular service fails? A map, compass and possibly a GPS unit might be useful. Bring a flashlight if shooting landscape photography at night. Your phone’s flashlight is fairly weak and may not be enough.
Also, items for comfort such as a towel, snacks, and plenty of water. Will it be a hot sunny day? Bring sunscreen. And don’t forget insect repellent, especially if you’re shooting during the golden hours when small bugs are at their most active. For waterfall or ocean photography, safety is also a big consideration.
A little forethought can make your landscape photography shoot a much more rewarding experience.
Using the Right Lens for Landscape Photography
As with many things, this tip depends on what you aim to accomplish with your photograph. If you’re doing something different and creative, you might be using a longer focal length to frame your subject more closely. As a general rule, landscape photographs are composed at wide-angle lengths, such as 24mm or wider. This is to capture as much of a scene as possible.
Sharpness is the primary quality you’re looking for in a landscape photography lens, so don’t feel pressured to get a lens with the lowest maximum aperture (or f-stop). You won’t normally be shooting at very wide apertures to begin with due to the softness and depth of field it imparts on the image.
Although you may own a zoom lens that includes this length, prime lenses (lenses that offer only one focal length, such as a 35mm lens) are preferable and usually are more solid in their construction, with fewer moving parts.
Stop Down to Maximise Your Depth of Field
As with the previous tip, you may be using a different aperture for creative reasons. The general practice in landscape photography is to capture the entire scene in as much focus as possible, from the foreground, through to the background. To do this, we’ll need to stop the lens down to a narrow aperture.
Personally, I start around f/8 or f/11, depending on the depth of the scene I’m shooting.
Although you’d think you’d want to stop down to f/22 (or whatever your minimum aperture is for the lens you are using) for maximum focus throughout the scene, this stop comes with a caveat. Generally, lenses tend to become softer when shooting at those apertures. You’ll want to stay below f/16 to ensure everything is nice and sharp.
Shoot in RAW
It is recommended to shoot in RAW format (as opposed to JPEG) for any type of photography, not just landscape. But landscape photographers might benefit even more than other disciplines.
The RAW format saves the image in an uncompressed file type that maintains the data as recorded on the camera’s sensor. This allows you to later adjust the image as well as its exposure, shadows and highlights with much more leeway in post-processing, as the full dynamic range has been captured.
The small tradeoff for this is increased file sizes as opposed to compressed JPEG files. But in this day and age of multi-terabyte storage drives, it’s a no-brainer decision.
Use a Tripod
Since you are stopping down to a smaller aperture (as discussed above), thereby reducing the amount of light coming into your lens, and you are shooting at a time of the day when there is a bit less natural light is available (you are, right? We discussed that too), you’ll want to always put your camera on a sturdy tripod.
This will counteract the possible effects of using a slower shutter speed and wind, and generally ensure your shot is sharp throughout.
Generally the heavier and sturdier the tripod, the better. If your tripod is a bit on the light side, you can always anchor it down with sandbags or a full backpack on the legs. Some tripods also allow you to hang weight from the centre column, thereby stabilising it.
Finally, if you have a remote shutter release, use it. You can purchase a wired release button that connects to your camera for $10 or less. This will eliminate the need to physically press the shutter button on the camera, which can introduce some instability.
Make Your Composition Interesting
As with all photography, composition is one of the most important aspects. It tends to be a bit easier when shooting landscapes. Your subject is almost always completely still, and other than concerns about the sun’s position, you can take your time to ensure you have the landscape photography composition you’re looking for.
The simple rule is to make things interesting by not following the natural rules of symmetry whenever possible. If you have a typical landscape scene featuring a foreground of land, and a background of clouds, water, or something else that forms a natural horizon, don’t place that horizon line in the exact horizontal centre of the photo.
Give the more interesting element more attention. Is the foreground rather bland, but the sky and clouds are amazing? Make two-thirds of the scene sky, and the lower third the foreground. Check our article on the rule of thirds for more composition tips.
Bracket Your Shots
Bracketing your shots means taking several captures of the same scene or frame, so that you’ll get the exact exposure you are looking for. These exposures are also often combined in post-production to produce HDR (high dynamic range) images that cover a larger dynamic range than the camera can capture in one shot.
Usually brackets are shot in groups of 3 or 5, and separated by one stop of exposure. To do this, you take a shot of the scene at normal exposure, with balanced shadows and highlights and even light. Then, you shoot an image at one stop lower than normal exposure, and another at one stop higher than normal exposure.
You then have three images, each covering a broad range of exposures. You can add additional stops above and below the normal exposure for an even larger group. At this point, you’ll have more images of the same shot to choose from, and can additionally create an HDR image if you choose to.
Use the Histogram
Many photographers often misunderstand the histogram, and don’t give it the attention it deserves. It’s not the be all/end all tool for all situations, but it can definitely give you a solid base understanding of how the light is hitting the sensor of your camera.
A full description of how the histogram works is beyond the scope of our discussion here. Essentially, however, the histogram shows you a graphical representation of the pixels and tonal ranges throughout your image.
Don’t Forget the Foreground
When you think of landscape photography, you think of beautiful mountains, lakes, majestic sunsets and cloudscapes. But keeping foreground elements of the scene in mind can add visual interest and depth, setting your photo apart from other similar shots.
Layer your image by adding a second subject in the foreground, whether it be a row of contrasting flowers, a river or stream flowing into the background, or rocky outcroppings near the sea. While you want to be careful to keep your landscape photography composition simple, adding another level of depth can truly set your photo apart.
For more great tips, check our article on using the Sunny 16 rule for a balanced exposure when shooting outdoors during sunny days.