(Note: This is a work in progress.)
You’ve no doubt seen an alluring landscape scene at one point or another and wondered to yourself, “How did they take that photograph? I’d like to photograph an image like that.”
Yes, photographing a landscape image well is possible, and you can do it. All it takes is a bit of composition, lighting, and some thought about how to go about it. The good news is that landscape images don’t necessarily need expensive equipment such as fast lenses. While you might need a tripod for certain shots or a wide angle lens for others, many landscapes can be shot with normal “prosumer” DSLRs. But there are a few things to think about, before you shoot.
In this article, I’ll list some things to keep in mind when photographing a landscape scene. While these are generally rules of thumb set forth to help your photographs be more pleasing, remember that, in the art of photography, the inverse of a rule may also be true. This means that, while I might explain the benefits of working the lighting in a photograph, for example, the same could be said for working the shadows in a scene. Thus, it’s up to you to understand what you are ultimately looking for when shooting the scene. Everyone has their own concept of the scene at hand, and the scene at heart. How you envision the scene in your heart will help your head figure out which way to manipulate the lighting settings for an exposure. Some people might lean towards brighter settings. Some see the darker… some go for even exposure and hope for the best, playing in Lightroom afterwards.
First and foremost, learn to look at the scene… with your heart….
What captivates you about the scene?
Current photographs are a two-dimensional representation of what we see in the real world, so if you’re going to take a photograph, make it memorable by shooting the scene from your heart’s perspective. What I mean is, take a moment and “see” what captivates you about the view, and make that the image you want to photograph. It may be a “wide” shot of everything in front of you. It could be a specific landmark that stands out. Whatever “it” may be, this gives you a beginning reference point for “what” you’re going to photograph, and the lighting style that you want to apply to it. What moves you about the scene? The shadows? The lighting? The darks? The sunlight? These mean something: They say everything about how you interpret the view in front of you.
Once you have your “heart scene”, then you simply need to apply the camera’s settings so that they mimic what your heart sees. Pretty simple, huh! Well, this is where the art meets the technical. You now have to work on making the technical settings match your heart’s scene. And, sadly, this is where most people will stop; they’ll set the camera for an even, well-balanced shot, compose the photograph, and be done with it.
While I don’t have any issue with a well-composed and well-balanced photograph, I do want to point out that that’s exactly what you’ll get if you let the camera adjust the lighting for you. But, is that what you really want? Are you certain that the camera is “seeing” what you are seeing? What if the camera metered for a bright spot in the image and darkened the magical area that inspired you in the first place? What if the camera thought the foreground was too dark, and took steps to lighten the image, and ended up blowing out the beautiful sky? That’s why I stress that it’s important to know your camera’s settings so that you can take the steps needed to help the machine better understand your needs when composing a scene.
Watch The Lighting
One of the most common pitfalls to avoid when assessing a landscape shot is to watch your lighting. There are a few items to watch for, but also realize that the inverse of an “issue” can also be a blessing. Knowing when to capitalize on the “given” and obvious parts of a shot, and knowing when to
For example, let’s look at one such famous scene setup. Although a great and vibrantly beautiful photo of Colorado’s Maroon Bells would be a morning shot with the mountains in the scene and the sun behind you ( because the sun rises in the east, casting it’s light westward on the Bells ), and if you take the time of day into account it would mean the scene was late enough for the sun to rise high enough to cast light onto the aspen trees below the mountains, yet early enough in the day to capture the reflection in the stillness of the water, you see that you only have a small window of time and availability to capture the shot in a certain way.
Add to that the fact that vehicle access is limited during peak seasons, necessitating a bus ride up to the Bells, and you see that the location and timing further complicates the scene’s setup. The moderate wide-angle nature of the scene means that you’ll need to have a lens in the range of 28mm – 45mm to capture all three peaks and the water. Lastly, since this might be peak time for the Bells, other people will be enjoying the scene as well… and your pristine mountain photo might just have two or three dozen hikers and a few of their pets in it. How are you at post production, and with photoshopping them out?
Back to the lighting. Some common items to watch for are:
Low contrast lighting. If contrasty, vibrant colors aren’t present in the scene of your viewfinder, the location may be in early morning or late day shadow at a time when lighting isn’t optimum. While I always say “get the shot”, trying to eke more vibrancy out of a shadowed scene doesn’t usually work. While you can get more light by increasing shutter speed, thereby brightening the photo, it won’t add much brilliance to the scene. If you have to work a scene like this, go ahead and experiment with the brighter light. Also, try decreasing the shutter in order to enhance the shadows. Doing so will darken the shadowy areas and increase the contrast. Experiment using the deeper darks with black and white, and see how that makes the scene look. … If you find yourself in a setting where you have no other choice than to shoot what you have, by all means, go ahead and do it! I certainly don’t believe that all “great photos” have to be in great light; that’s just not true.
High contrast lighting. Being the opposite of low contrast where the shadows are overly present, high contrast occurs when the sun (or other primary light source) overpowers the scene. In landscape photography, this is generally referred to as “afternoon sun”, “afternoon light”, or “direct lighting”. The sunlight