Landscape photography is one of the most popular genres of photography and it’s easy to understand why. After all, every single person at some point in their life has probably looked at a landscape photograph of an epic scene with dramatic clouds and beautiful light and just thought, “Wow!” But as easy as it may seem, capturing stunning landscape images isn’t straightforward. Here are seven tips to help you capture the perfect landscape photo.
1. Find Your Perfect Spot
The starting point for any great landscape photo is your location. This, of course, means you have to start planning a shoot in advance to ensure you don’t waste time looking for it once you are on location. The first thing you need to do is decide what you are actually going to photograph. Is it a beautiful valley from lookout point? Or is it a historic castle perched on top of a cliff?
This might come from your research into the area you are visiting or it might be a place someone has told you about. It could even be somewhere that you have already been to, but now want to photograph.
Once you have an idea of where and what you are looking to photograph, you then need to look at the relevant maps to make sure that what you are planning to photograph is accessible. Then you need to delve in deeper and ensure that your view of that beautiful valley isn’t going to be obstructed by a big hill in front of you – this means using maps that show elevations. On top of all of this you also need to factor in the direction of the light and how that will affect your view.
Ideally you want to end up with an exact spot of where you would like to photograph and which direction you are intending to look. The good news is that in today’s digital world there are tons of options to help you find out this information from the likes of Google maps, and apps like Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills.
2. Light is Everything
Any sort of outdoor photography relies heavily on the light that is available. For landscape photography, light is even more vital. The most amazing scene in front of you will look uninspiring and mundane under a blanket of white cloud. If you want to capture the perfect landscape photo, then you need to ensure that you are working with the best light possible.
It’s no secret that most landscape photographers would recommend photographing in the early morning and late afternoon/evening. This is when you will get a low golden soft light from the sun that produces long shadows but that doesn’t mean you can’t photograph at any other time.
You just need to ensure that you understand and have planned for the light you intend to use. For example, it may be that you want to capture a particular side of a cliff. It may be that the only time it is lit by the sun at that time of year is late morning. The most important thing is understanding and trying to organize your shoot for the best time that you possibly can.
3. Compose Your Shot Perfectly
One of the best things about landscape photography is that you often have plenty of time to prepare and compose your shot. That big mountain in front of you isn’t suddenly going to move like an animal does in wildlife photography. As long as you have planned your shoot well and have arrived at your location early, you should have enough time to really fine-tune your composition.
The first thing I always do whenever I get to a location for a landscape shot is just to sit down and look around for 10-15 minutes, I recommend you try it. Not only does this help you evaluate the scene and think about the best composition, but it also helps you lower your heart rate (if you have had a long walk). It allows you to get over that initial awe that you often feel when you see an amazing landscape before you.
When you feel you are ready, compose the shot and take a few test photos while you wait for the perfect light. Think about the scene in front of you. Should you show more of the foreground? If so, is there a point of interest to capture the viewer’s eyes? Or are there interesting mountains or sky, in which case you need to show more of the background? As I said earlier, keep taking test photos and recomposing your shot until you feel that you have the perfect composition and then wait for the perfect light.
Clearly, on the odd occasion, you might have to work fast. For example, if you have a small break in a storm that allows the rays of the sun to get through, but the majority of the time if you have planned your shoot well, you should not be in a hurry.
4. Use a Tripod
For landscape photography a tripod is essential. If you want to capture the best possible photo, in the best possible light, you will have to use a tripod. The alternative usually means having to raise your ISO, which in turn means excessive noise in your photos that can affect the overall image sharpness.
But the other advantage of using a tripod is that it can give you more options for your photography. For example, you can use slower shutter speeds to capture movements of clouds or water or give you a more elevated or lower point of view.
Yes, they are a hassle to carry (you may want to invest in a good camera bag that you can strap your tripod to), but they are simply essential for landscape shots.
5. Use Graduated ND filter
Often the other most widely used accessory for landscape photography is graduated filters. One of the big challenges of landscape photography, especially in low light conditions is the difference in the light areas (the sky) and your dark areas (the foreground). For example, as it gets nearer to sunset, the sun drops lower on the horizon. This might mean that mountains obstruct it.
You then have a situation where your sky is really bright as obviously it is still being lit by the sun, but your foreground is dark because the light from the sun is obstructed by the mountains. So, if you expose for the sky (light areas or highlights) then your foreground will be too dark and if you expose for the dark areas (shadows) your sky will be blown out ( completely white with no detail).
To compensate for this difference in exposure settings needed, you can either use a technique called “exposure stacking”. That means taking multiple shots at different exposure levels and then merging them into one photo in post-processing (using layer blending or HDR techniques).
Or, most landscape photographers prefer to capture photos as correctly as possible at the time of taking the photo. In this situation, the only way to do this is by using a graduated neutral density filter, which balances out the difference in the brightness between the top and bottom of the photo.
6. Experiment With Shutter Speed
As mentioned earlier, one of the great things about landscape photography is that you often have time to take a few different shots. Even during the short time when it’s sunset or sunrise, you will have plenty of time to experiment with different settings and even a few different compositions. So don’t be afraid to really push your settings to extremes.
For example, set a really slow shutter speed of 30 seconds and if there is some wind you will see some amazing cloud movement streaks in the sky. Or if you are by the coast set a fast shutter speed to capture the waves crashing into the rocks. Play around with the settings until you have something that looks amazing and captures the scene perfectly.
Usually, the final step in any good landscape photo is some post-processing. This always seems to be a contentious issue as some photographers prefer to keep post-processing to a minimum and some like to really boost the image. Whatever your preference and way of working are, it comes down to personal opinion. But there are a few things that you should look at as a minimum.
For example, making sure your images are straight, clear of dust spots, and correcting the white balance should be a must. You may also want to tweak the crop of the photo if it needs it. Beyond that, ensuring a good contrast and boosting the saturation will help your landscape image jump out.
Generally speaking, every photo will benefit from some level of post-production. Some will need more and some less.
Landscape photography is an incredibly rewarding genre of photography. A great landscape shot often has the power to really capture the viewer’s attention which is why it’s no surprise that it’s also one of the most popular branches of photography.