This photoguide article is on landscape photography. What I hope to do is not to show you how to be a National Geographic staff photographer, and as you read further you'll see why this isn't necessarily possible nor probably what you want, but instead to give you some idea how to improve your images and take pictures you would be proud to frame on your living room wall.
The Tough Part
In my opinion, the toughest part about landscape photography is learning to be patient. Especially if you're travelling. This is for two reasons. First, it's hard to tame ones excitment when you're on vacation. If you're like me, you arrive in say Prague and you want to immediately start snapping away as soon as you step off the train !! I mean it's PRAGUE !!! Your adrenaline is pumping and everything looks amazing those first few moments you arrive in a new locale. And that will probably last for the next 2-3 days. So the tendency is to snap away at everything !! I mean it's PRAGUE !! Well, there's really nothing wrong with that. Especially in the age of digital cameras. But unless you're super lucky, you're not likely to take your best shots during this time. You're simply too excited and don't take the time to properly choose the right locations and compositions that will give you those stunning photos. My advice is this, when you first arrive at a new location. Indulge a little. Take some test shots, check them on your digital camera, but don't be disappointed if they aren't your best. And plan for a second visit later on in the day or the next day to the same locations for your pictures. The most important thing to do is LOOK around and get to know your location. The stunning shots will take a little longer. What's the second toughest part ? I'll tell you later. ;-)
What is Landscape Photography ?
So what is a landscape ? Is it simply a picture of mountains or of a stream ? How is it different from a picture of a person ? How is different from a picture of an object ? Simply put, the basis of landscape photography is to record the land. The size, the shape, and even the feel of the land. Keep these goals in mind when you take your next landscape shot. How can I convey a sense of the size of this vast wilderness ? What is it about the shape of this stream that's so interesting ? What is the mood of a sunset ?
A photograph is essentially a 2 dimensional thing. However, the real world is not 2 dimensional. In order to properly convey a sense of the size of the real world, we must employ the artist's concept of "perspective". Our visual perception of the size of the world, is based on being able to reference it against a known quantity. The relative size of a mountain against, say your 18 year old sister, gives your brain important clues about how big the mountain is, or how far it is away from your current location. Here I'll share with you one tip. If you ask a professional (and I have), the first thing they think about when composing a landscape is not what's far off in the distance, but what is close at hand in the foreground. Try to include an object such as a rock or plant in the foreground to give the photo a sense of "vastness". Try different compositions. You'll quickly find that different techniques are more effective to convey the sense of space than others.
In order to gain more detail of the distant landscape you will have to increase what is known as the "depth-of-field". Which is basically how much infront and how much in back of the subject you've focused on is sharp. If you have it on your camera, be sure to use the landscape setting (the little triangular mountain shape on your camera's mode selector). The camera should take care of the rest. On more advanced cameras (digital or film) there is an "A" setting and you can do more fine tuning. This setting allows you to choose the "aperature" of the lens. You'll have to read your camera's manual on how to do this. There are too many cameras out there for me to give you specific instructions within this guide. But generally it's very straightforward. Set the aperature to f8 or higher. Then compose and shoot. Your images will be clear from the foreground to far in the distance. Now the downside of this (you knew there was a downside didn't you?) is that setting the aperature higher closes down the hole infront of the lens which lets the light in. Which means that for a given sensitivity of film or digital camera sensor setting the longer it takes to get sufficient light into the camera to make a picture. Which means early in the morning or late in the evening, you're either going to have to hold the camera with incredibly steady hands to hold the camera while waiting for the picture to be taken, or you use a tripod. I'll explain in a minute why you want to be out early before sunrise and late after the sunset. In newer cameras there's also the choice to have vibration reduction (or Image Stabilization or Optical Stabilization, etc. depending on manufacturer) technology which can help, but generally a tripod is more effective and less expensive. Vibration reduction is expensive (I paid an additional $400 more for one lens with VR) !!
One other thing I don't think I need to tell you about is that zooming wide gives you the ability to capture more of the land. I think most people instinctively understand this point. For landscapes then, a wide angle lens is useful. Any lens capable of being set to a value between 20 to 36 mm is generally considered to be a good wide angle landscape lens when using 35mm film. Which means on most DSLR's that have a crop factor of x1.5 you'll need to purchase a lens capable of being set between 13 to 24 mm's. Many photographers say less than 20mm the images start to fisheye (bulge out in the middle) and more than 36 mm is too narrow to capture enough of the land. However, tastes vary. I was shooting sunsets using a zoom set around 100mm yesterday. So don't feel you must run out and spend hundreds on a new lens.
By following the rules of composition (covered in an earlier article) you can easily capture shape. Look for leading lines. Look for meandering s-curves. Again, get down and use wide-angle lens distortion to your advantage. Depending on the scene, different techniques will apply. But remember to decide beforehand what is it that appeals to you about this scene and then think of a way to capture it.
Feel can be created using a number of things. Colour is a great one. Blue is cool and red is warm. But how to capture blue ? How to capture red ? Think of the time of day. Early in the morning (about 30min before sunrise), as the mist rises from the ground, the low and diffuse light gives a cool feeling. So get up before the sun and you'll be-able to capture this mood. Just before the sun completely sets (about 30min before), the sky turns bright red and orange. Make your way to your chosen location and you'll capture this mood.
These two "magic moments" are the secret to capturing the great landscape colours.
Planning Your Shots
One fundamental of landscape photography is you don't control the subject. Mother nature controls the land. And she's not going to bother changing the position of the sun just for you. Nor will she move a mountain just because you asked her to, no matter how nice you ask. Begging might help, but I haven't tried that one. You let me know how well that works, ok ? ;-) So it's your job to be there, when the sun is in the right position, and your job to hike 3 miles up the hill to the lookout to properly frame the shot. Great landscape photography is a lot of work !! Next time you see a great shot of the Alps, just think about what it took to make that photograph.
Now there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself. Ask a local guide where the best scenery is. Or else use a map or guidebook and study the local area with photography in mind. Keep in mind the time of sunrise and sunset, and plan to be at a particular location to have the desired sunlight. Keep in mind the weather and season. Notice when there will be fog, high humidity, dense cloud cover and use these elements to diffuse the sunlight and change the mood of the photograph.
Which brings us to the second toughest thing about landscape photography. Having the time to take the pictures. If you're like me, you can't stay several months or even a year at a particular location to wait for the proper weather or light for that picture postcard perfect image. Yes, this is why you don't necessarily want to, nor have the means to become a National Geographic photographer. Those guys will literally live for months in a particular place to get one or two stunning images !! You or I can't afford to do that. But we can do our best. By carefully studying the area, planning our itinerary, using proper technique, and a little luck, we also can land a real "keeper" !!
There are two pieces of equipment that almost every landscape photographer says are a bare minimum to have.
One is a tripod. This is essential for long exposures (see above). The most important thing is choose one that's stable. So go into the store, extend it fully and wiggle the top to see how stable it is when holding your camera. This need not be the most expensive one. I paid $20 for a great tripod that I have no doubts would work great with my little Canon point&shoot.
The second is a polarizer filter (for autofocusing cameras you need to ask for a "circular" polarizer instead of a linear one. The linear ones don't work with the automatic focus.). This is a circular piece of glass that screws into the thread infront of your lens or into an adapter which connects to your camera. It works in a similar way to polarizing eyeglasses and will cut down the glare and haze from the sun. Your skys will be bluer and your grass will be greener. To set it you look through the lens and rotate the polarizer until you see that the colours are what you want. Use the view finder or LCD depending on your camera to look through the lens. Some cameras (like my Canon) are tricky and have a separate view finder which doesn't look through the lens. So I have to use the LCD. But generally if the view finder isn't viewing through the lens the LCD display does.
Landscape photography need not be complex or expensive. Infact, many professional landscape photographers use garage built wooden boxes with 19th century technology to achieve their results. Three out of 4 of the above photographs were taken with little point and shoot cameras. The important thing is to learn your subject and carefully plan your shots. Good luck and have fun !!