My Top 5 Tips To Improve Your Landscape Photography

June 13, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

My Top 5 Tips To Improve Your Landscape Photography

I was recently told I should do one of those “Top 5” or “Top 10” tips type posts and I started giving it some thought. I have always felt reluctant to do this kind of post. I didn’t want do the usual combination of “rule of thirds, leading lines, golden hour, use a tripod, shoot in RAW etc. They may be great tips but there are already many posts, videos and articles out there that cover them and I just thought "what’s the point in me just rehashing them?" So I started to think about the development steps I have taken as a photographer and what has really helped me to grow. This led me to the top 5 tips presented here. I would have tried to do them in reverse order of importance but, to be honest, they are all pretty much as important as each other, with the possible exception of number one, which might be the most important tip of all. So, here we go

Top Tip Number 5

Take control of your camera

If your camera has program modes (Landscape, Portrait etc.) then it can be really easy to use them for convenience. By doing so you are giving a lot of your creative control away and I believe it’s important that you understand what the different settings on your camera do and how they change the final image. So learn how to shoot in the three key modes, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. I shoot about 70% of my images in Aperture Priority and the rest in Manual mode, but I know how to shoot in shutter priority and what changes it makes to the images I shoot. It’s important to understand how different apertures will impact the images you shoot, The depth of field, the exposure time and even the effect on light sources like the sun or artificial lights. Also learn how your metering system works, most have several different modes including spot, centre weighted and matrix (or evaluative). These will change the way your camera interprets the scene for exposure calculation Then there are different focusing modes. Focusing on a single focus point or allowing the camera to select from the available points based on the scene. For landscapes you rarely need that kind of dynamic focus capability that is essential when shooting fast moving objects but it’s still good to know how they work. And don’t forget manual focus. It can come in really handy. And finally, practice changing settings so that you can do it quickly and accurately in the field. If a magical moment of light is happening you really don’t want to be fumbling around trying to remember how to dial back your ISO or change from manual to aperture priority That’s how you miss the shot.

Top Tip Number 4

Learn how your lenses work

Different focal lengths can have a massive impact on how your images look. A wide focal length will increase perspective, Close things will look close but things even a short distance away will look further away and smaller. A long focal length will compress perspective. Things that are actually at quite different distances can look much closer together. Learning how your lenses work and how the different focal lengths effect the scene can help you decide if you are better to zoom in (or out) for a shot or change your position to get closer (or further away) It’s also a good idea to understand the effect that aperture has on the quality of your images. Most lenses have a ‘sweet spot’ where they are sharpest and if you use a larger or smaller aperture they will start to become softer. This effect may be almost unnoticeable or may be quite pronounced. It depends on your lens and your camera. There are many pieces of advice out there to use a small aperture to get maximum depth of field for landscapes. This works and, if your lens and camera combination doesn’t suffer from quality issues at small apertures then you can do this. However, if you experiment to see how aperture impacts the sharpness of your images then you can make appropriate choices in the field about which aperture to choose to get the best combination of depth of field and overall quality. On the subject of depth of field it’s also worth having a basic understanding of this and how to use Hyperfocal Distance focusing (it’s easiest to download a chart, there are loads of them about) Also understand the controls on your lens. Most will have an Autofocus (AF) on or off switch. With some lenses you can still manually focus with AF switched on, on some others this is a bad idea. Some lenses also have some kind of image stabilisation (sometimes VR) and this can be really useful for shooting hand held but can cause problems if you are shooting on a tripod. Get to know what your lens(es) have and get into the habit of checking how they are set before and during a shoot.

Top Tip Number 3

Learn how to process your images

All digital images are processed. If you shoot in JPEG then your camera processes them based on algorithms designed by the software developers for your particular cameras manufacturer. If your going to go to all the trouble of taking artistic control of how your camera captures the image then why leave it up to the automated process to decide how the image is finished. Shoot in RAW (if your camera supports it), so that you have the maximum amount of data in the image file to work with, and then process it yourself. How much processing you do is up to you. Some people like to do a very light touch, tweak a few tone sliders in Lightroom (or a similar product) and leave everything else as is. Some people prefer to do a whole range of adjustments to an image including using third party digital filters, exposure merging, dodging and burning and a whole lot more. The important thing is that you have control about how the final image is processed. On the subject of processing software. I know there are lots of different solutions out there. Some of them are free and some of them cost money. I know that many people begrudge paying for this kind of software when there are free options available. I understand that. Personally I pay to use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop under the Creative Cloud agreement. This means I pay monthly and I get continuous updates with the latest features. It costs me less than a couple of coffees a month (probably a lot less if you buy your coffees at some of the big name chains) and I don’t consider this to be a lot of money for the amount I use it. I haven’t really used the free software for quite a number of years and I’m sure it offers some great functionality. I choose the Adobe products for two reasons. The functionality of the products and the wealth of information out there on blogs and youtube channels to help me learn how to make the best use of it.

Top Tip Number 3

Practice seeing light

The most important thing in landscape photography is the light. The most beautiful and awe inspiring scene can look dull and boring if it’s shot in bad light. The best light is to be had around sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky and the light is soft and warm, but it’s also important to understand the other conditions around that light. Which direction is it coming from? How strong is it (filtered by clouds or straight through a clear sky)? How else are the conditions changing the light (clouds can reflect light onto a landscape that is not being directly lit by the sun)? What kind of shadows are being created and how strong are they (shadows can add a lot of texture to a scene but, if they are too strong can cause exposure issues and result in excessively dark areas)? While the hour around sunrise and sunset is normally the best time for great light (it’s why it’s called the golden or magic hour) great light can be had at other times of day, perhaps into late morning and as soon as early afternoon, particularly in winter when the sun is normally a lot lower throughout the day, so it’s worth observing this and understanding how it can work for your images. Plus there are, of course, other light sources than the sun. Night photography brings in the moon, the stars and artificial lights for example. The great thing about this tip is that you can practice it all the time, even if you haven’t got your camera. As you go through your day look at how the light is falling on the world around you, and try to imagine how it will look at different times of the day or year when the light is coming from a different position. It’s amazing how doing this over a period of time will give you new ideas on where and how to shoot.

Top Tip Number 2

Practice seeing compositions

If light is the most important thing in landscape photography then composition is not only the second most important thing, it is potentially the ONLY other thing. A great view, even a world class view, can look dull and boring if the composition is wrong. Conversely, a fairly routine view can look spectacular if it is composed well. There are ‘rules’ of composition. The rule of thirds, the golden ratio, lead in lines, foreground, middle ground and background etc. These are not so much rules as starting points. The idea of composition is, normally, to create an image with depth and to lead the observes eye to where we want them to look, ideally by following a path through the frame. Adding foreground interest as well as a background helps to show the third dimension in our two dimensional images. If you have a clear foreground, middle ground and background then you have depth. If you have some kind of line that runs from the foreground to the background then this will lead the eye in. Of course don’t forget the focal point. The main piece of interest that you want to observers eye to rest on. I’m not going to get into the rules and technicalities of composition here, again there are a wealth of articles, books and videos out there that do that. What I am going to suggest is that you start to look at the world around you in terms of composition. Once again this is an exercise that can be done even if you don’t have your camera. If you see an interesting view, don’t just stand there looking at it, have a bit of a look around the area and see if you can spot a composition that would work. Find some foreground interest, a nice focal point, etc. If you can do that, and then imagine the scene in different light conditions (as per Tip 3) then you will start to see all sorts of photographic possibilities.

Top Tip Number 1

OK, so this is my most important tip…

Take photographs!

Sounds obvious but here’s the trap that’s easy to fall into. We want to get beautiful pictures so we want a beautiful location. We find some but they are all a long drive away. We want to shoot them in the best light so we have to find time to make a long trip early in the morning or stay late in the evening We want the sun to be in the right direction so that limits the months when we can shoot at this location and get the best results We really want the right kind of weather, some clouds to create interest in the sky and perhaps reflect some light on the scene but not so much that no light can get through Add all of these limitations up and when do we actually go out to take pictures? Maybe we’ll get a chance in a couple of months if the weather looks promising. It’s an easy trap to fall into and, when we do eventually get there we may well end up being disappointed with the results. Not only may the conditions not be what we hoped for (this happens a lot) but, because we haven’t been practicing, we end up making a mess of the opportunity. Poor exposure, composition or focus means we end up with disappointing pictures. So… Shoot When and Where You Can! If that means going out in the middle of the day to the local park, or even in your own garden, so be it. With the right composition even images that are taken in “run of the mill” places, and in the “wrong” kind of light can be beautiful, and by getting out and shooting you have a great opportunity to practice tips 5,4,3 and 2 and, as a result you will be developing your skills, in all aspects of creating an image from composition to processing, and improving the chances that, when you do get to that special location, at the right time of day, and in the right weather conditions, you will get some shots that are what you hoped and dreamed you would get.

Bonus tips!

OK, I wanted to mention a few bonus tips that I’m not going into too much detail about

Bonus tip 1

Look at other peoples work and learn from it. I don’t mean try to copy it but look at what elements (light, composition, reflections, processing styles etc,) you particularly like about an image and then try to factor these elements into your own images. You don’t just have to look at photographs. Paintings and even TV programs can provide great inspiration. Conversely you can also decide what elements you don’t like and exclude them from your work.

Bonus tip 2

Learn patience and persistence. A lot of landscape photography is waiting around for the light to be just right. By all means take pictures while you’re waiting but don’t be tempted to rush off too soon. Also be prepared to try, try and try again. Sometimes, despite what the weather forecast says, the weather is not what we hoped for. If it doesn’t work out then you may just have to go back again if you really want that shot. Of course you can sometimes find alternative shots so you don’t go home empty handed.

Bonus tip 3

Enjoy being outside. Finding locations and checking out compositions in advance is a fundamental part of landscape photography. Sometimes I might scout a location and decide to come back in 6 months. For me, the scouting process is enjoyable, I like to get out and about, I enjoy being outside, getting exercise and relishing the scenery. If you enjoy that too then you will have a great time regardless of what you find.

Bonus tip 4

Several times in this article I’ve mentioned that there are a lot of articles, blogs, and videos about a variety of subjects including composition, post processing and a lot more. Use them. They can be a great learning source and you will get a lot of different viewpoints on how things can be done that you can then try out and decide what works for you

Bonus tip 5

Have fun! While there’s a lot of things to learn and practice, photography should be enjoyable. So have fun doing it. Sometimes when I’m out and about I’ll just take pictures for the hell of it. It might be some flowers or birds, or some other random thing that catches my eye. I may never use them but it soothes the shutter junkie within and sometimes I get some really nice images this way. I hope you have enjoyed this article, If so a Like or Share is always appreciated and please feel free to leave any comments below


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