11 Elementary Landscape Photography Tips / by Neil Alexander

For this week's post, I thought I'd pen a few landscape photography tips. These things have become like second nature and many, if not all, I just take for granted. So I hope I've explained them all without getting too bogged down in minutiae.

Art Prints

1. Get up early - To many, the holy grail of photography is that gorgeous pre-dawn light that spreads a mellow golden glow across the landscape as the sun prepares itself to crest the horizon for the day ahead. Those first few moments of the day often produce the most spectacular photos but unfortunately, more often than not, it means winching yourself out of your pit at some ungodly hour long before the birds have burst into their daily song and the roads are still completely devoid of life. Either that or you have to descend a treacherous hillside in the complete darkness cursing yourself for leaving the torch in the car.

2. Prepare - It’s all well and good downing that first coffee at 4am as you jump into the car but if you don’t know how long it’s going to take you to get there, where you will park and how much further on do you need to hike to get the shot, then your preparation will be wasted. There are plenty of great free tools to help you work all this out. I use Google Maps and Street View all the time to plan journeys, find parking spaces and scope out the terrain. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (http://photoephemeris.com/tpe-for-desktop) is a very clever tool for seeing how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any date for any location on earth. There’s a smartphone version too.

3. Slow down - So you’ve been up since zero dark thirty, have drunk so much coffee that you can’t stand still, and you are blessed with the most incredible sunrise and a stunning location. The temptation is to shoot, shoot and shoot some more. The sky changes so rapidly at this time of day, it can feel like “blink and you’ll miss it.” You won’t if you slow down and think about what you are doing. Simply spraying around in blind hope, I guarantee you, will lead to disappointment later when you view your images on your computer and have a total “WTF?” moment.

4. Start wide.  I always start with a wide angle lens when I’m making photographs of landscapes. I’ll scan the scene and compose, shoot and recompose until I feel I’ve exhausted the possibilities in front of me. Then I’ll drop on a longer lens and pick more selective compositions. Occasionally I’ll end up all the way out at 200mm but it’s a rare occurrence in this line of work. Were I to start all the way out and then bring it back the other way, I’d miss compositions that I wouldn’t otherwise have scene. By slowly working my way into a scene, my brain is far more likely to “see” compositions.

5. Tripod. Always, always, always use a tripod when shooting landscapes. Not only do they help you massively with the whole slowing down thing but who wants to come home to a fuzzy image. Learn how to use your tripod properly and lock your camera down so that it’s rock solid and will give you tack sharp images.

6. Shoot RAW - Shooting landscapes is one area where RAW really comes into it’s own. A jpg file, which by its very nature is compressed, will contain far fewer 1s and nothings at the edges of the histogram (The histogram is the little graph that sometimes comes up on the back of your camera when you can’t find the right button you’re looking for. It represents a chart of the distribution of tones throughout the image. All the way to the left is completely black and all the way to the right is completely white). Whereas RAW files will have much more data at the periphery of the histogram and software, such as Adobe Lightroom, will often be able to dramatically improve areas in the photograph where it appears to be completely blown out, JPGs will have these areas clipped and will stand less chance of having usable data in these areas.

7. Depth of Field - Critical to any composition is knowing what you want to be in focus, what you want to be out of focus and by how much. Some lenses are better than others but if you learn how to get the best out of yours, it’ll be worth it. Essentially, the smaller the aperture number, the bigger the hole that allows the light to hit your sensor and vice-versa.  These smaller aperture numbers (1.4, 1.8, 2.8) will give you a narrow depth of field. If you want an object in the foreground to be in focus and the rest of the photograph to be blurry and out of focus, then you’d use a smaller number. Think of your photograph in 3D and break it down into a series of vertical slices. This means that only a few vertical slices in front and behind your subject will be in focus - this depth is your depth of field. If you have a stunning  vista and you want everything to be in focus then you’d have to use a higher number (depending on the set up you are using, anything from F11 to F45 and beyond….) and this would give you a far greater depth of field (many more slices). This is critical. Trying to shoot every single scene you come across front to back sharp would be a bit like having an entire million strong music library at your disposal and listening to the same Boyzone track over and over…..

8. Polariser - A handy little tool. Some photographers swear by them, others use them very little. The short story is that they can cut reflections, particularly in water and glass but they can also be helpful in boosting colour. For a polariser to have the maximum effect you want to be shooting at right angles to the sun. They’re normally circular, so dial as far as you’d like to go and then back just a notch. Over polarisation in photos is not a good look. But if you like Boyzone, then maybe you like over-polarised photos too. 

Kinesis Filter Pouch

Kinesis Filter Pouch

9. ND Filters - I never go anywhere without my filter pouch and in it I have all manner of neutral density filters. 
A neutral density or ND filter is simply put, either a clear piece of perspex or glass, part of which has been darkened. This can be a gradual change or a sudden step. They are supremely useful for reducing the brightness of a sky or lifting a foreground for example. They are also almost mandatory when it comes to shooting water if you want to get that silky long exposure feel. This is because they can be used to reduce the amount of light getting into your camera, giving you slower shutter speeds thus smoothing out the water. One of my go to ND filters is a Singh-Ray variable neutral density filter which allows me to simply dial ND in and out. You can even get reverse ND filters which have a darkened band along the middle perfect for those sunrise and sunset shots when the sun is right on the horizon and the middle part of your photograph is the brightest.

10. Horizontal - Get a bubble level or use your digital level in your camera if you have one. Who wants to look at a wonky landscape?

11. HDR (High Dynamic Range) - If you have extreme contrast in your scene, then often one image will not be sufficient to capture the range from complete black to white white. In these circumstances, you can shoot several different exposures overexposing and underexposing and then merge them all into one in software afterwards. Just be careful how much you throw those sliders - overdone HDR is not pretty, seriously.

And there you have it. A whole bunch of tips that I hope you'll find useful.

Please feel free to comment and share.

Until next week.


All content copyright ©2007-2018 Neil Alexander, Neil Alexander Photography