Landscape photography is a classic photography style, and something nearly everyone can enjoy. But there are a number of factors to consider beyond having the right scene. Lens selection makes a large impact. Also extra gear and software play a large role in getting shots like the one above. So what techniques and gear are right for you?
The timing and location are perhaps the most important. While a bright sunny afternoon is what many people think of as ideal, some of the best times for striking landscape photos is during the Golden Hour. The golden hour is the hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. The sun shines through more layers of atmosphere then, giving the light warm red or orange notes. A scene can be utterly transformed every few minutes as the sun continues to rise or set.
A lens with a wide angle field of view is essential for landscape photography. Anything below 40mm of focal length (or zoom) can be considered a wide angle lens for most purposes. But you really want to start getting below 20mm to get a truly wide sweep of your favorite scenic vista. Also because of the way most lenses are designed, each additional mm of focal length makes a much larger difference as you start getting below 20mm.
This first view was taken at 18mm, which is fairly standard for DSLR and mirrorless kit lenses.
This second photo was taken from the same location using a focal length of 12mm. The extra 6mm of focal length makes a dramatic difference. Technically 18mm is still a wide angle field of view, but for truly panoramic style views, we want as wide angle a lens as possible.
Circular polarizing and neutral density filters are also handy tools for the landscape photographer. Of the two, circular polarizing filters will be used more often. A CPF filters out much of the scattered light in a scene. Glare from the surface of a stream on a sunny day can be reduced or eliminated, revealing the fish and stones below. Photos with the sky look deeper blue, with more contrast and detail in the clouds. And haze effects from dust or pollution can be reduced or eliminated with a polarizing filter. Neutral density filters are great for long exposure effects on a bright day. They stop the light down one or more steps. By reducing the amount of light reaching the sensor, you can use a much higher shutter speed than normal. With neutral density filters, a 3 second shutter speed, and a tripod on a sunny day by the beach, the water will melt into a smooth suggestion of flow instead of choppy waves.
Tripods are another essential tool for great landscape photos. As mentioned earlier, we sometimes want to use a longer shutter speed for a landscape. If the lighting levels are low, or we have polarizing and neutral density filters limiting our light source, shutter speeds need to drop to let in more light. But trying to shoot a scene handheld with a slow shutter speed is a recipe for blur. Even the steadiest of hands will cause loss of detail once you get slower than 1/125ths of a second. Many modern cameras have image stabilization in the body and lens. Image stabilization helps counter unwanted movements from the photographer, shutter, and environment. But it only goes so far, and the tripod is still some of the best image stabilization you can get. No amount of in-body or in-lens IS will let you do a 2-4 second exposure to get a photo like the beach above.
Today’s photographers have access to a variety of digital tools to clean up images that might not have turned out exactly the right way. Two tools landscape photographers should familiarize themselves with are the Highlights and Shadows tools in Lightroom. Both are found on the Basic panel of the Develop module. Highlights adjust brightly lit areas of the image to be brighter or dimmer, while Shadows adjusts the low lit areas.
As you can see in the second image, adjusting Shadows to +100 gives better exposure on the bridge without changing the light level of the background sky.
Clarity is another landscape photographer’s tool, also located on the Basic panel of the Develop module. Adjusting the Clarity slider will add contrast in the middle tones of the color profile of your photo. It’s a more subtle adjustment than the Contrast slider that will bring out details in water, metal, rocks, vegetation, and skies very nicely. But it should be used sparingly to avoid an overly artificial look to your landscape photo.
The second image has been adjusted by +61 with the Clarity slider. Notice how there’s extra contrast in the ship, water, and clouds. Using the Contrast slider would have quickly made the colors too bold to look realistic. If you know software editing will be needed, it’s always better to shoot using RAW format rather than JPEG. RAW files contain all of the original image data. When the computer software goes to make edits, having all of that information will make the edits look better than trying to use compressed JPEG files. Combining these software tools with the right hardware, the right time, and the right location will ensure your photography captivates every viewer. Happy shooting!