I tried a lot of genres but it is landscape photography that really fascinates me. I think there is something special, challenging and very rewarding about it. You can’t control many elements of it, nature is often unpredictable but with enough patience, a lot of careful planning, using proper gear and a bit of luck you might be able to capture really spectacular images. It will be gift from nature given to you.
Today I would like to share with you some tips in hope they will further increase your chances of capturing great landscape photos. I use them in my own photography and learnt them through the years of my own experience. I grouped them in a few categories to make them easier to read.
Also feel free to click on the images in this tutorial to read more about the photos including story behind them and camera & exposure info.
Planning & preparing to take the photos
1. Make good research before shooting photos
During photo shoot there is usually not enough time to find best spots, best angles, best compositions and so on. So ideally you would do a few scouting visits to your chosen location before date of your shoot but if that’s not an option use other sources like travel guides, Internet, photos of other photographers, maps or Google Earth. Don’t fear to ask other photographers for their advice too – many of them will give you great hints.
If you can’t do a lot of research, make sure at least to check sunrise and sunset times to know when you can experience best light. I use Twilight Calculator website for this but there are other tools (including apps for iPhone). But I don’t use them so don’t want to give you unconfirmed info here.
If you plan on visiting larger area make sure to check what are the most recommended spots for photography.
BTW I wrote whole tutorial about researching locations here.
2. Check tides before your arrival if you plan shooting seascapes
Checking the tides is really important if you intend to photograph seascapes as otherwise you might be unpleasantly surprised the conditions are not good for photography (as some places look fantastic during low tide; other – during high tide). It may also happen that you won’t be able to access particular spots during high tide. Or even worse – that you won’t be able to leave the location safely because you will find your exit route covered with water. On the other hand some locations become extremely slippery during low tide. Remember – safety should always come first!
Photo below was only possible to take during low tide. During high tide the cave was flooded with water and so completely inaccessible.
3. Wait for the best light
Basically shoot during sunrise and sunset as light is much softer and warmer at this time of day. It can be also very dramatic at times if there are clouds or fog.
Make sure to be at your location at least half an hour (or more) before sunrise and during sunset wait a little after sun already sets because this is when the real magic often happens. This time is known as blue hour and many photographers make a mistake and leave location during it. But deep blue sky, together with purple or vibrant red clouds can make some fantastic photos!
Also sometimes you won’t have good light once you arrive at the location. But don’t leave immediately! Conditions can sometimes change in just a few minutes and what seemed to be flat boring light will turn into some of the most amazing light you ever experienced.
4. Try photographing just before or just after storm (or during it if you’re brave enough 🙂 )
In both cases dramatic clouds together with dramatic light will result in some stunning and surreal images. You might also get lucky and photograph either a rainbow or a lightning. Both phenomenons are equally beautiful.
Below photo was taken during sunset just a couple of minutes before severe tropical storm in Mexico. Notice how dramatic the sky is.
5. When on location try to move around (or not)
It often happens that photographers become “glued” to their spot once they start shooting and don’t want to move. However, this way you can miss some great angle, subject etc. Unless you have specific photo in mind, try to move around and try different compositions.
But in some cases it might be worth trying the opposite (especially if you researched your location well and have clear vision of the image you want to capture), i.e. to stay in one place. But I recommend that only if you really know what you want to achieve.
6. Remember about safety!
I believe that no image is worth risking your health and life. It’s always possible to get back to the location on the later date so taking risk is really something that you should avoid. Don’t lean over abyss, be aware of tides, watch for slippery rocks, don’t run with your tripod, etc.
7. Double-check your shooting settings
Before you actually take any picture make sure you set correct settings like ISO, image quality (RAW or JPEG), white balance, aperture, etc. Also make sure Image Stabilization is off, if you’re shooting from a tripod and if you intend to focus manually that Auto-Focus switch is actually disabled (or enabled if you want to use it).
There is nothing worse than coming back home from a glorious sunset just to discover that you were shooting at ISO 6400 all the time and that your images are very very noisy… believe me, it’s really painful 🙂 (and yes, it happened to me). Right now I have a habit of checking the settings just before I start shooting. Also just after the shoot, I reset all the settings to the values I use most often.
8. Make sure you have enough depth of field
Even when using ultra wide angle lenses there are cases when it’s difficult to have both foreground and background in focus. This can happen when you’re very close, like just a few centimeters, from your main subject (e.g. some rock) but you also have some objects further away from you, like trees or mountains.
To achieve good focus in both foreground and background apart from closing the aperture (to around f/11 to f/16 depending on the image), consider using focus stacking. Basically this technique requires you to take several photos, each of them focused on different part of the scene. In minimum setup it means taking just 2 photos: one focused on the foreground and one focused on the background but in some cases you might need to take more photos for objects in between. Once you have such images you will need to blend them in Photoshop to achieve focus stacking.
In the photo below I used this technique to achieve focus both on the cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji in the distance. I was standing just about half a meter from cherry tree, Mt. Fuji was several hundred meters way so focus stacking was the only way to get everything sharp.
9. Use manual focus
There are many tips and techniques to increase sharpness of photos (and I listed my 10 useful tips here) but using manual focus is one of the easiest and most effective things to get tack sharp photos, even in low-light conditions.
Although Auto-Focus is a great feature and it does fantastic job 90% of times, it can sometimes be a bit imprecise or can work not that effectively in difficult light conditions (like at night, during sunset or sunrise, in the foggy conditions) which are often found in landscape photography. What’s more manual focusing isn’t that difficult at all and many cameras have focus assisting features (eg. focus peak) which makes it even easier. Just switch to live view mode, zoom in preview and slowly move focusing ring until you see everything sharp. Using manual focusing you will consistently produce tack sharp images.
10. Cover whole dynamic range of the scene
Landscape photography often involves photographing scenes with very high dynamic range, e.g. sunset or sunrise might have dynamic range that spans 22 or more stops what is definitely too much for current cameras and you will end up with parts of your image washed out or completely black. In such case even excellent sensors of Sony A7RII, Nikon D810 or Canon 1DX II aren’t enough to capture all details (but they are still way better than say 5D MK II).
11. Try photographing in the night
Try photographing in the night for a completely different out-of-this-world mood. Camera sensor can see much more than our eyes at night (our eyes don’t see colors at night) so with a long exposure you will be able to capture some amazing colors. You can also try shooting the stars (you can read my tutorial here).
12. Don’t be afraid of shooting into the sun
One of the first rules any photographer learnt when they started taking photos… and so not very true at the moment. Shooting into the sun will let you capture fantastic light. What you should avoid, however, is looking through the viewfinder while shooting into the sun as this can potentially damage your eyesight. So when taking such pictures make sure to use Live View mode of your camera.
13. Try photographing when it’s foggy
It will allow you to create mysterious mood and to have very clean and simple compositions (as for makes it easier to separate scene elements from each other). Using fog to your advantage can create some spectacular images in the mountains, especially when you capture them during sunrise when the light goes through them making them glow.
14. Include foregrounds in your photos
Probably it’s one of the most important tips in this list. Landscape photos without foreground element are boring and missing something.
You can have beautiful mountain, waterfall or dramatic clouds in your frame but in most landscape photos your main subject won’t fill whole frame and it will often be in the background. To make every part of the frame interesting you have to include some interesting element in the foreground. It can be some rock, flower or leaf.
In the photo below I used moss-covered rocks as foreground element.
15. Search for leading lines
This is general compositional advice but quite important for landscape photography to make the photos more interesting. Look for lines that will lead viewers eye through the image. It can be literal line like road, bridge, tall trees, rope. But it can also be a pattern in which stones are laying on the beach or it can be flow of water (which in long exposure will look like line but you have to be aware of this before taking a photo).
16. Look for layers in the landscape
Another advice on composition. You can create powerful images by making clean separation between layers in your landscape. One layer can be sky, another mountains, forest, city in the valley, etc.
17. Include people in your photos
Although most of the time we landscape photographers try to take people-free photos, there are actually a few cases when including people in the frame might be a good idea. First one is when we need to give viewers better sense of scale. If there is a mountain or a tree in your photo, viewer won’t be able to tell whether it’s huge, medium or rather low as long as there is no element in the frame that has easily recognizable height. Such element might be a car, a house but people will do as good (and in many natural environments you won’t find artificial subjects such as houses).
In the image below I left both tiny human figure (to the right of the rock) as well as the boat in the distance on purpose. Without them it would be quite difficult to tell how big the lime rock formation in the middle of the photo was. Now, both a boat and a person gives a better sense of scale so you know that this rock was really huge!
18. Use different perspective or point of view
Whenever we see a subject we’re familiar with from a different, unusual or surprising perspective or angle we tend to find such photo more interesting. In landscape photography you can use this e.g. when photographing mountains. Instead of photographing from their base you might try shooting from the summit, above clouds level or showing valley down in the image.
Also I often shoot from just a few centimeters above ground level.
19. Make sure your horizon is straight
This one might seem very obvious… but I still sometimes notice landscape photos with horizon being slightly off.
Important thing to bear in mind is that you have to give the impression that the horizon is straight. Sometimes, e.g. when photographing distant shore of the lake, there might be some kind of bend or curve that might give the impression horizon is off (even if it isn’t).
20. Try shooting both in landscape and portrait orientation
Some subjects might look better in landscape orientation, while others will look better in portrait orientation. So try shooting both from time to time.
Consider using L-Bracket to make changing orientation of your camera easier & faster and to avoid risk of your tripod falling over due to changed center of weight.
21. Look for the water reflections
Reflections are one of those things that add a lot of interest to your photos, especially if the water is not moving and looks like a mirror. Also the best thing is you don’t need lake or river to capture reflections, often even a puddle will do. Just get very close to it and shoot from the ground level with ultra wide angle lens to make it look much larger than it really is.
Just make sure when processing the image to maintain brightness difference between the scene and its reflection – reflections are usually 1 – 2 stops darker and if you break this rule, your photo will look artificially.
In the photo below I put my camera just above ground level close to a puddle which looks as some sort of a river reflecting soft sunset in Thailand. In reality this puddle was much smaller.
22. Use a steady tripod
It’s a must if you’re taking photos during sunrise/sunset, during blue hour or at night but even day light photos will benefit from it. Using steady tripod not only will make your photos sharper but it will also allow you to use a number of creative techniques like long exposure or bracketing.
If it’s windy or slippery make sure to add some weight to your tripod (you can attach bag to it) and/or use spikes to decrease the chance of your tripod moving.
23. Shoot with wide angle lens
Using wide angle lens will let you show whole scene. Wide angle lens is useful for many kind of landscape photos from seascapes to forest to Milky Way shots. My favorite one at the moment is Canon 16-35 f/4 L IS.
Using ultra wide angle lens also gives the impression of subjects being further from each other.
24. Shoot with tele lens
Sometimes instead of showing whole scene it might make sense to show just a little piece of it. Maybe there is some interesting detail (like rock, mountain summit surrounded by clouds, interesting tree in the distance)? By using tele lens you can easily do this.
What’s more tele zoom lenses compress the perspective what gives a feeling of subjects being closer to each other what you can use in a creative way.
25. Use rain cover when photographing in the rain
When photographing in the wet environment (during rain, by the sea or under very humid conditions), make sure you either use weather-sealed camera and lens or rain cover for your camera (you can get the simplest one for just a few dollars; there are more sophisticated ones too but they cost much more).
In fact I learnt this the hard way. Two years ago I was photographing seascapes in Mexico when big wave came and splashed on my tripod. Sony NEX-6 I was using at that time stopped working almost instantly… and the worst thing was I didn’t have backup camera with me.
When taking below photo it was raining heavily so even though I used weather-sealed Canon 5D MK III I still decided to use rain cover for it. Just in case.
26. Use polarizing filter
Circular polarizing filter is one of my favorite filters. It allows you to get rid of unwanted reflections and boosts colors saturation (by cutting out extensive reflecting light). Remember that polarizing filter works best when used closest to a right angle (90 degrees) from the sun.
Also as polarizing filters darkens the exposure by about 2 stops, you can use it as alternative to neutral density filter if you don’t have one.
27. Create long exposure images with Neutral Density filter
You can use long exposures for several types of effects. You can show movement (e.g. by blurring water you can show water flow in the mountain stream or waterfall), make the photo more dramatic (when it’s windy on a grassy plain you can use long exposure to show this movement – this will make photo very dynamic) or to make photo very calm (e.g. when using very long exposure while photographing rough sea).
No matter what kind of effect you will try to achieve, most of the time you will need to block out the light reaching your camera sensor. Even stopping down to f/22 won’t give you long enough exposures most of the time (and for many reasons using apertures as slow as f/22 isn’t recommended). You will need so called Neutral Density filter. It comes in a variety of densities and it can stop 2, 3, 10 or even 14 stops of exposure. The most dense ones (like 10 stop or higher) are almost black so you will need to compose and focus your shot first and put the filter on afterwards.