Will buying that new camera or lens or travel to iconic places automatically result in beautiful images?
Landscape photographers often dream about the latest gear or traveling to far away places to capture great images. For example, places like Iceland, Patagonia, Lofoten Norway, or Tuscany. The problem is that we spend too much time in front of our computers seeing all those great images on social media platforms and dreaming about photographing those vistas ourselves.
We believe that going to iconic places or buying the latest gear will automatically make us better photographers, or that this is the only way of capturing great imagery. As with any craft, you need to practice, practice, and then do some more practice. This way you’ll have the greatest possibility of taking that fantastic photo, either close to home, or once you finally go away on that travel adventure of your dreams.
Here are my 10 tips for how to improve your photography without buying new gear:
1) Learn the basics about your camera and photography
Start by reading your camera’s user manual. Yes, it’s very basic and should be obvious to everyone, but you would be surprised how often people buy a new camera and start using it right away, thinking that the camera is going to do all the work. Many camera stores also offer beginner courses. Ask your local camera store about this option before deciding to buy from them.
Learn about topics like leading lines, the rule of thirds, exposure compensation, and the relation between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I will not go into this in more detail as it would merit a whole book, but these topics are available in printed books, e-books and here on dPS.
Read more here:
- How to Use Leading Lines Effectively in Landscape Photography
- 5 Simple Techniques for Leading the Viewer’s Eye in Your Images
- How to Use Exposure Compensation to Take Control of Your Exposure
- Mastering the Exposure Triangle for Newbies
- Understand Exposure in Under 10 Minutes
2) Do your photography under the right conditions
A word photography literally means drawing with light (from the Greek photós meaning “light”, and graphê meaning “drawing, writing”). I would say that at least 80 % of your most successful images will be taken during the sunrise or sunset when the quality of light is the best. The other 20 % will be taken during cloudy days when the light is much softer than days with direct sunlight.
Many photographers don’t consider this second aspect enough. When starting out, I would often photograph during sunny days with clear blue skies with hard light that produced too much contrast. Today I try to do as much photography when there’s a shift in the weather pattern from high to low pressure or vice versa. The reason is that during this period there’s often a build up of dramatic clouds and the weather shifts between rain and sun creating more drama in your photos.
I suggest that you regularly check the weather forecasts and try to plan your photography for these days.
3) Scout for new locations and return multiple times to the same place
The majority of my best photos are from places very close to home. Most of the time they were not taken on my first attempt, but rather I had to come back many times to the same location before the conditions were right.
Google Earth is a great tool for your initial location scouting as are social media platforms like 500px, Instagram, or Google+. Remember that you should use these sites for inspiration, and not try to copy the same images that have already been taken numerous times before.
4) Change your vantage point
Have you ever considered the vantage point of your photos? The majority of photographers always take photos from the exact same position as they are standing – at eye level. This creates boring photos that all look the same. It’s also the same vantage point from which your viewers see the world.
By crouching down low or shooting from a higher position, like a hill or even from the top of a rock, it will drastically improve your photos. The visual appearance of your photo can dramatically change by just placing your camera a couple of meters in another direction. You should “work the scene” by looking for different viewpoints and not be satisfied with your first choice.
5) Use your lenses creatively
Use your wide-angle lens for creating depth in your image and your telephoto lens to compress the landscape. Both techniques are very effective and create totally different effects. By trying to pre-visualize how your want your photo to look, your choice of lens will be much easier. This takes time and comes more naturally as you gain greater experience.
For landscape photography, you often want to maximize your depth of field by taking photos between f8 and f/16. You could go higher than that but then you risk having softer images as most lenses have a “soft spot” between these parameters.
You could also try to zoom or move your lens during the exposure. This technique is more a trial and error basis and often you need to take many photos before you’re satisfied. Luckily all your frames in digital photography are free.
6) Use the elements in your surroundings to your benefit
Is there is a rock, a tree, strong colors, some leading lines, etc., that you can use to create interest in your image and lead the viewer’s eyes throughout your image?
Because we are fed daily with thousands of images, it becomes important to immediately catch the viewer’s attention and make sure that their mind is stimulated. Therefore, the image should have a clear object, this could be a person or a landmark, which the viewer can quickly identify.
If the photo is too busy with too many conflicting elements, the viewer will become confused and move on to the next image. Less is often better than more. Consider excluding elements that do not add to the image. It could be annoying things like tree branches entering the photo from the corner, paper bags and other waste in the photo, etc.
7) Invest in good quality accessories instead of buying the latest camera or lenses
There are some camera accessories that are more important than the latest camera or lens.
The single most important one is a good quality tripod. You should not waste your money buying a cheap aluminum tripod that will shake every time you put your camera on it, resulting in useless blurry images. In the end, you’ll be forced to buy a more expensive tripod anyway, adding unnecessary extra costs. Instead, spend the extra money on a quality tripod from Manfrotto, Gitzo, 3 Legged Thing, or any of the other top brands. Trust me, in the end, you will end up saving money.
Another very important accessory for us landscape photographers are filters. You definitely need a good polarizing filter to reduce the reflections on water and other shiny surfaces. Polarizing filters work the same way as your sunglasses.
Cameras are also limited in their ability to handle dynamic range. In short, this means the ability to register the darkest and lightest tones and everything in between. An example of this cis when you’re photographing a landscape and the foreground looks good, but the sky is too bright. This is where the graduated filters come into play. They have a dark and light part with a soft or hard transition in between. Generally, you should use a hard transition filter when photographing seascapes, as there is a clear definition between the sky and the water. A soft transition filter is preferred when photographing landscapes where there are trees, hills or mountains.
I’ve tested many different brands and would highly recommend LEE filters, They are expensive, but in my opinion are worth every penny. Lee also produces two neutral density filters called Little Stopper and Big Stopper. These filters enable you to slow down your shutter speed. When you see those photos with silky smooth water or clouds, most likely the photographer used such a filter.
While these accessories will cost you some money, they will be more of a one-time expense. Taking good care of them means you can use your accessories for many years to come.
8) Photograph in RAW format and learn to use a photo editing program
When photographing in JPG mode you let the camera do all the processing of the image. This means you have less control over the final outcome. It’s better to photograph in RAW format and then use a software like Adobe lightroom to post-process them yourself.
For me, the main reason for shooting in RAW is to have a greater dynamic range so that I’m able to save many images that are otherwise too light or too dark. Of course, it’s important to get the exposure correct from the start, but RAW files definitely give you some room for errors. There is a lot of information about RAW format and post-processing, read; RAW Versus JPG – Why You Might Want to Shoot in RAW Format and How to Use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop to Make Your Landscape Images Pop.
9) Learn to focus manually
This is crucial for landscape photography. As mentioned above, you’ll hopefully be taking most of your photos in low light during the morning or evening. You will also be using a tripod to avoid camera shake.
During long exposure photography, it becomes very important to focus manually in order to avoid having the focus move during your exposure as is the risk when using autofocus. You should use a small aperture like f/11 and focus about a third of the way into the scene if you desire to have sharpness throughout the frame. Make sure you use your camera’s Live View mode or focus peaking if you own a mirrorless camera, for manual focus assistance.
10) Think before you shoot and study your photos afterward
Often I see photographers arrive at their location, take out their gear, and do the “machine gun “photography approach, taking dozens of photos from the same location over and over again. It’s important to work the scene, moving around looking for the best viewpoints.
The same applies when you’re done editing your photos at home. Try to study your photos and look for improvements. Compare your work with other established photographers to see how you can do things differently next time. This takes time, but after a while, you’ll certainly notice better quality in your work.
These 10 points are just the very basics to get you started. Make sure you search dPS for more information, study photography books, and feel free to leave a comment below or ask any question you might have. Good luck!