Snappy Tips for Better Photos - Part 4 - Landscapes / by Neil Alexander

For part 4 of this series, I thought that after the basics of camera control, The Holy Trinity and portrait tips the next logical step would be to focus on landscape photography but there are so many possible tips I could mention that I could well get 2 or 3 posts out of this topic. But today I'll try and stick to the (relative) basics.

Tree in the Derwent Valley, High Peaks. Shot as usual on a tripod with a cable release

  1. The first and most important tip for any semi-competent landscape photographer is to stabilise your camera. More often than not, I shoot landscapes at shutter speeds that are far below the recommended minimum for hand-holding a camera1, so the best way to try and get a sharp image is to use a good solid tripod. This means that (unless I'm shooting on an exposed mountain top in a howling gale) my camera will be anchored down, and with the use of a cable release I won't even have to touch my camera to make a frame. The reason for this lack of contact, is that every time I come into physical contact with my camera whilst making a photograph, no matter how hard I try, I will effect motion. Even the action of pushing the shutter button can cause the photograph to blur ever so slightly.Ashley sunset, Cheshire
    Ashley sunset, Cheshire - This image wouldn't be the same without the setting sun between the trees
    View up The Struggle towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn, Lake District

    View up The Struggle towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn, Lake District - I spent a great deal of time researching this area before travelling up to the Lakes.

  2. Research locations & Leg work - This is probably one of the least / most fun parts of landscape photography depending on your point of view. Personally I love pouring over maps, using apps to work out sunrise and sunset times, their expected azimuths and so on. However I expect if you're not quite as nerdy, then this would be a rather dull and uninspiring task. It's not quite so necessary to do this obviously if you're familiar with the area you plan to shoot, but if you have to travel some distance as I often end up doing up to the Peak District or the Lakes or abroad, then a little planning is essential to avoid completely wasting one's time.

  3. This next tip is one I learnt from amazing landscape photographer, Adam Barker from Utah when we were out in IndoChina last year and it's saved my bacon on more than one occasion. When I'm setting up a shot of some great vista, or even something as simple as a tree, in order to guarantee I'm going to get the shot in focus, I'll temporarily put my camera into live view (which means a real time image of my scene shows up on the camera's LCD), put my cursor where I want to zoom, and then zoom in on the LCD screen as far as I can go. I'll then put my camera into manual focus and tweak it until I can visually see on the screen that I've got it perfect. I then go back to mirror lock-up or whatever mode suits, leaving the camera in manual focus and shoot away. Guaranteed 100% sharp images every time. The other option if your camera doesn't have live view is to zoom in on the images as far as you can after you've taken it and verify that you have a crisp sharp photograph.
  4. Finally for today, I want to talk about filters. On this point alone I could prattle on for hours, but to save your sanity I shan't. There are two types of filter (IMHO) that are essential to landscape photography, and these are the circular polariser and the graduated neutral density filter. A polarised filter works exactly the same as a pair of polarised sunglasses. Used correctly, it can reduce reflections from water and windows, enhance the blue in the sky or bring out the green in the foliage amongst other uses. Very handy. Good ones aren't cheap.... Graduated neutral density filters or Grad NDs come in an assortment of different shapes and sizes. Generally these are used when you have too great a contrast range between your sky and your foreground or background. They can tone down the sky to varying degrees, even enhancing the cloud structure adding a little more drama to your image. They often allow you to avoid blowing out your highlights and shadows in what would appear to be a very high contrast scene. I personally only use Lee filters and currently have 4 or 5 ranging from 0.3 stops to 0.9, hard and soft (meaning that the join between the normally and the filtered part is either a sharp hard line or a softer graduated transition. Another tip I learnt from Adam, is that it's actually far less faff to physically hold these in two hands by the corners with a cable release in your hand than you'd expect and negates the need for fancy filter holders (which just adds yet more cost).

    Phnom Bakheng in the background, Siem Reap[

    Phnom Bakheng in the background, Siem Reap. Made using an ND Grad filter

  1. Next on the list, and probably actually more important than a stable camera is the light, and specifically the time of day. 99% of all the best landscape photographs were shot at either sunrise or sunset. This is because the light at this time is soft and golden, giving these times of day the affectionate term of "golden hour". Harsh summer midday light is an absolute no no for any landscape photographer. To verify this for yourself, just head outdoors just after dawn on a clear day and look around, then compare this to the same scene around midday - the sun will have risen much higher in the sky, and will therefore be much warmer and produce much harder shadows due to its elevation and brightness. Short winter days are a bit of an exception as the sun is in the sky for a much shorter time, and therefore doesn't climb to quite the same elevation. So it is possible to make acceptable landscape photographs pretty much all day in deepest winter, but even still those made in the middle of the day are unlikely to be award winners.