The Ultimate Guide to Landscape Photography For Beginners

If you’re at a stunning location and in perfect conditions but you have no idea what to look for to take that stunning shot, then you could end up with a satisfactory image at best. But this guide will hopefully give you some tips and ideas to start capturing dramatic landscape shots.

The Basics

Location

Location is key to a good landscape photo, so if you’re in a bad location you’ll probably end up with an ugly shot. Finding a good location is one of the biggest challenges for landscape photographers, but there’s a few websites to help you find the perfect place for your shot.

Shot Hotspot
With Shot Hotspot you can type in a location to search for hotspots in that area, after that it displays a map with hotspot points, then you click on one to view photos taken in that area. You can also filter the location by type, such as landscape, nature and urban.

MapMyPhoto
MapMyPhoto is similar to Shot Hotspot in that you type in a location to find hotspots in that area, and then a map is displayed with hotspot points which you can click on to view photos taken in that location. This website also has the ability to search by type, such as landmark, landscape and nature, but also gives the option to search by what lens is required to take the photo, such as wide angle and telephoto.

For more ideas on locations worth shooting in, you can simply browse google images or a photo sharing website such as Flickr for some landscape shots you like, then take a note of where they were shot.

Background

The background of your photo is one of the most important aspects in landscapes photography. To start off, you’ll need to find a decent spot from where to take the photo from. Once you’ve done this you can start looking at the background and composition. A simple background with very little complexity to it works the best, for example some mountains or fields.

Foreground

After you’ve chosen your background, next look for some subjects in the foreground to include.

Here’s a few ideas for your foreground:

  • If you’re on a beach perhaps a sun lounger, umbrella or people.
  • A large rock or trees for example are good choices with a mountainous background.
  • A river or waterfall with a forest as the backdrop.

Arranging The Elements

A good practice which will catch the viewers attention is to have one main focal point in your image, and this is usually the most interesting and biggest subject in your image. When you’ve chosen your foreground and background subjects, they need positioning in your shot. Some ways to arrange these subjects is to use some composition techniques such as lead in lines and the rule of thirds.

Lead in Lines

Lead in lines are useful for drawing the viewers eye into the image, usually from the foreground to the focal point of your image. They are usually vertical lines beginning at the bottom of your image moving up towards or into the focal point. Some examples of common lead in lines are roads, fences and shorelines.

The Rule of Thirds

Another composition technique is the rule of thirds. This involves splitting the whole scene into thirds, with two vertical and two horizontal lines. One way to use this is by placing your foreground subject at one of the intersecting lines at the bottom, and your background along one of the horizontal lines.

Create a Sense of Scale

Creating a sense of scale in your photos can add a lot of drama to your shots and help the viewer appreciate just how big subjects in your scene are. Some ways to achieve this is if you have mountains in the background you could try including some trees or rocks in the foreground.

Lighting

Lighting is a big factor which can make or break a photo, and the best way to control your conditions is to watch the weather forecast. The best times to shoot a photo, especially for landscapes are at sunrise and sunset. The light at these times is often much warmer and dramatic, creating long shadows, and emphasizing form and textures. The light at midday is often a lot flatter than at sunset and sunrise, especially in summer, and you will usually get a much cooler white balance to your photo at this time of day. If the light is flat, which is common on an overcast and cloudy day, you’ll struggle to get a good landscape shot and it may be worth waiting for the sun to appear.

Exposure

A common difficulty with landscape shots is getting the sky and landscape at the correct exposures, because often the sky is a lot brighter than the landscape and so the camera will underexpose the shot to compensate, which will make the landscape too dark and details will be lost. There’s a few ways to overcome this, one of which involves taking different exposures of the same shot, (which you’ll need a tripod for) then combining them in Photoshop. Another option is using an ND graduated filter to make the sky darker, and then the image should expose correctly.

Evaluate

Take a look at all the photos you’ve taken in the past and evaluate all their strengths and weaknesses. You can start with evaluating the most important technical details such as shutter speed, aperture and exposure and decide whether you would change any of them if you were to shoot them again. This is a useful practice for learning what settings work for different scenes, and eventually you’ll know automatically what settings to choose. Take a look at the composition and think of ways you could compose it differently. If your photo doesn’t use the rule of thirds and looks unbalanced or not quite right, try using this technique when you next get chance, and this could improve your photo substantially. Finally take a look at the weather and lighting in your photos, perhaps the light is very weak and your landscape lacks colour, so you can plan ahead next time for better conditions.

Get Creative

By simply tweaking a few camera settings you can change the whole focus and look of your shot. If you want to add a bit of movement to your photos, for example if you’re photographing long grass and it’s a windy day, you can try blurring it to give the appearance of motion by simply using a slower shutter speed. Also you could try this with moving water, such as a waterfall or river to give it a smooth and unreal look. When using a slower shutter speed you need to use a tripod to keep the rest of your image sharp, and to get a slower shutter speed there are a few options, such as using a narrower aperture, decreasing the ISO, or using an ND filter to reduce the amount of light going through the lens.

Camera Settings

  • Always use RAW or RAW+JPEG if you do a lot of post processing. The reason for this is that RAW format stores unedited image information and a lot more of this data than JPEG files.
  • Aperture priority mode is the best option for landscapes, because you will be changing the aperture for every photo, or full manual mode is even better if you know what you’re doing.
  • Use the lowest ISO possible to reduce the amount of grain in your photos.
  • Your shutter speed should always be at least equal to your focal length to avoid blur, for example a 50mm focal length should have a shutter speed of at least 1/60s.

Essential Gear – The Telephoto Zoom Lens

Whenever you think about landscape photography, the lens choice that probably comes to mind is a wide angle zoom lens, and this works pretty well to capture expansive landscapes. However, there are situations where a Telephoto Zoom Lens makes a better option or sometimes the only option. A telephoto zoom lens is basically a lens that is much longer with a higher zoom than a normal lens.

The most common use of a telephoto lens is capturing something that you cannot get close to. They are the lens of choice for wildlife photography as photographer can zoom in close to distant animals which are difficult to approach. The need to photograph landscapes from a distance may be essential due to many reasons. One reason for this is you might not be able to get the desired perspective from a closer range and so shooting from a distance will remedy this.

Another reason for using a telephoto lens is the need to compress the visual elements in a scene. You may want to make closer and more distant elements appear closer to each other. Consider a scene with visual elements covering over half a mile of distance. If you photograph such a scene with a wide-angle lens, you might not get your elements lined up the way you want. The closer objects might appear large and distorted while the distant ones would appear tiny. This is an example where only compressing the elements would work to get the right shot.

While the main use of a telephoto lens in such a setting is to compress the elements to bring them together, there are some other potential benefits too. One major benefit of this lens is that it gets rid of the distortion that you face when photographing natural elements at a close range with wide angle lenses.

Another benefit of a telephoto lens is it allows you to easily include or exclude the sky when you zoom in, while a wide angle lens makes it difficult to completely exclude it unless you shoot in a forest or at a height. So cropping out the sky is super easy with a telephoto lens.

Landscape shooters often look for increased depth of field and do not require a fast aperture. They can work with smaller, slower and lighter lenses. While wildlife photographers seek quick and precise autofocus, landscape shooters often focus manually.

Some of the Disadvantages of Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto zoom lenses with longer focal lengths are majorly affected by camera shake, and you may not be able to reach the shutter speeds required to combat this when hand holding the camera. Using higher ISO settings can help combat this, but at the focal lengths often used this will need to be set very high and as a result you will lose image quality, so a tripod is very much needed.

They are also heavier and inconvenient to hold for longer periods of time, so this is another reason to use a tripod or monopod, to help avoid strains on your arms.

Neutral Density Filters

One of the most useful tools for a landscape photographer are filters, which are pieces of glass attached to the camera lens to transform the light hitting the sensor. A Neutral Density Filter is one such filter that reduces the amount of light passing through the camera lens.

Neutral Density Filters are must have filters for those who are serious about nature and landscape photography. In this short guide, we will discuss how ND Filters can help you take better landscape photographs.

What are Neutral Density Filters?

The filters that block light, Neutral Density Filters are designed to help reduce the amount of light passing through the camera lens. Most landscape photographers use ND Filters to create a surreal effect with dark, stormy looking clouds.

An ND Filter is essentially a darkened piece of glass and it is designed not to change anything but the quantity of light passing through it. Other aspects like the color or polarization of the light remain unaffected.

Neutral Density Filters can be used for creative effects like longer shutter speeds and wider apertures which otherwise wouldn’t be possible. These filters are most useful in bright light conditions where a lot of light is available.

Types of Neutral Density Filters

There are different kinds of Neutral Density Filters depending on the strengths they offer. The strengths are based on the amount of light they block and it is measured in various ways, the most common being the number of ‘stops’ of light blocked by the filter. For example 3 stops, 6 stops and 10 stops are the commonly used ND filters.

While Solid Neutral Density Filters block light evenly across the frame, Graduated Neutral Density Filters block light across a part of the frame. Half of the filter is clear and half opaque giving a graduated area in-between.

These filters are used by landscape photographers to gain better control over exposure. This is particularly important in outdoor photography to allow more sky detail while exposing the foreground. A graduated ND filter blocks light from the sky without affecting the foreground.

Why Use Neutral Density Filters?

A Neutral Density Filter lets a photographer control the exposure in a photo easily. The ND filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera sensor, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed. Using an ND filter is a great alternative to changing the aperture to reduce the amount of light entering the camera lens.

Landscape photographers generally use ND filters when shooting water as it blurs the movement giving you a silky-smooth appearance. Without ND filters, it might not be possible for most cameras to get the aperture small enough to achieve such an effect.

When to Use Neutral Density Filters?

ND Filters are best used in bright light conditions. When there is strong light, there is a chance of losing details in the image highlights during long exposure photography. Other uses are if you’re trying to capture a flowing stream or waterfall, and so it’s beneficial to use an ND filter to get the silky-smooth effect. ND Filters are also useful when you want to emphasize the movement of clouds in the sky.

Capturing Clouds

Clouds are often an overlooked and ignored part of a scene, and they appear all the time in Landscape photography, so if you learn to incorporate some techniques into your photos you’ll see a remarkable improvement.

Now, not all days will give good results with cloud photography, and obviously when there are no clouds then these tips aren’t any use. Times that are difficult to get good cloud photos are usually days when the sky is overcast and a flat gray without any texture or movement.

The Best Times

Days when the clouds are patchy and there’s gaps for sunrays to shine through make for a dramatic looking photo. Not only do the light rays look spectacular but they also light up parts of your scene which can create a very interesting atmosphere. These are probably the best times to shoot when the sun appears and disappears behind clouds. So watch out for windy days when there’s some movement in the clouds.

Sunset and sunrise are particularly beautiful times to shoot and you’ll get much more vibrant colours and drama at these times. There will be completely different colours and lighting conditions at sunset and sunrise and the sun will create an orange, blue, pink and yellow hue.

The Benefits of HDR Photos

When there’s strong and interesting lighting this is the best time to utilize HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos. For this you’ll need a tripod to keep the camera still because you will be taking a few shots which all need to be in the same place. Next you need to set the camera to auto bracketing and for the settings, -1, 0 and +1 will work well. When you’ve taken the shot you will get three photos all at different exposures and all capturing a different range of shadows and highlights. These can then be combined in editing software to form a high dynamic range of light and colours.

Post Processing

If you want your photos to really stand out then editing your photos in post processing is an important step that can always benefit your photos however good they already appear. For example you could play with the contrast or levels to add more drama to your photos, and if you take your photos in RAW format, you have much more room to tweak your photos in Photoshop or other software.

I hope this guide has given you some help and ideas to try out whether you have a bit of experience shooting landscapes or if you’re just starting out.

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