Everything you need to know about landscape photography, start to finish
Landscape photography is a popular genre among many photographers for a number of reasons. It is relatively easy to get into due to the fact that even the most basic cameras and lenses can capture stunning landscapes. It works greatly as a hobby for those who like getting out and immersing themselves into nature. And lastly, landscape photography is simply a lot of fun because there is always something new to learn.
My landscape photography journey has been a big learning curve and I have been enhancing my skills so much during the last few years, that I realized I could spend the rest of my life learning. In this article, I decided to share everything I know today about landscape photography, with plenty of tips, tricks and techniques to get you started.
It is amazing to see how quickly the world is changing around us. What seemed to be intact and perfect just a few years ago is getting destroyed by us humans.
One of the reasons why I fell in love with photographing nature is because it is my way of showing people that the beauty around us is very fragile and volatile. And if we don’t take any action now, all this beauty will someday cease to exist, not giving a chance for our future generations to enjoy it the same way we can today.
Hundreds of movies have been filmed, thousands and thousands of great pictures taken and yet the world is not listening. What can we do and is there hope? It is very unfortunate that we only act when a disaster of a great scale hits us and the unbalanced force of nature enrages upon us.
But we as photographers must continue to show the world the real picture out there – the deforestation of our rich lands, the pollution that is poisoning our fresh waters and causing widespread diseases, the melting of glaciers, the extinction of species and many other large-scale problems that are affecting the lives of billions around the world. Therefore, it is our responsibility as photographers to show the real picture.
What is Landscape Photography?
Landscape photography is a form of landscape art. While landscape art was popularized by Western paintings and Chinese art more than a thousand years ago, the word “landscape” apparently entered the English dictionary only in the 19th century, purely as a term for works of art (according to Wikipedia).
Landscape photography conveys the appreciation of the world through beautiful imagery of the nature that can be comprised of mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, waterfalls, plants, animals and other scenery or life.
While most landscape photographers strive to show the pureness of nature without any human influence, given how much of the world has been changed by humans, depicting the nature together with man-made objects can also be considered a form of landscape photography. For example, the famous Mormon Row at the Grand Teton National Park has been a popular spot for photographing the beautiful Tetons in the background, with the old barns serving as foreground elements.
Photographing landscapes involves three key elements: photo equipment, skill/technique, and light. Let’s look at all three elements one by one.
Good and reliable photo equipment is extremely important to achieve the best results for landscape photography. If your camera can take exceptional photographs, but cannot withstand extremely cold or hot temperatures, it will certainly limit you in what you can do. Therefore, it is best to have a camera that can both take good pictures and withstand tough weather conditions.
Why is the latter important? Because some of the best landscape photographs are taken in very challenging weather – during a storm, after a heavy snowfall, early in the morning at below freezing temperatures, etc. Take a look at the following picture of sand dunes I captured a while ago:
At first, you might think that the weather was nice and pleasant when I captured this photo. But the reality of the situation was quite the opposite – it was extremely cold and windy, with sand hitting my face like those icy snowflakes hit you when you ski.
The Nikon D700 I carried that day suffered pretty badly, with the sand piling up in its every dent and hole. My Nikon 24-70mm zoom ring was full of dust and I remember the screeching sound I had for months, because I could not get sand particles out of it.
Thankfully, both survived, and I was able to capture many more images like the one above afterwards. And this is just one example; I abused my camera gear like that countless times and always relied on it in the most challenging situations.
What about camera capabilities? No matter how weather resistant your camera is, it must be able to deliver images that are sharp and vibrant, and provide sufficient features for you to be able to capture even the most complex scenes. That’s where having a camera with a large sensor, rich in-camera features, good support and a wide selection of solid lenses / filters are important.
Let’s now talk about gear in more detail.
Camera Selection – Film or Digital?
The question of digital vs film is a never-ending debate and I do not have any intentions to bring up another heated debate over which one is better and why. I will simply state what is true for landscape photography today and what works best. For most people, a high-resolution digital camera is the way to go, because it is going to be simpler to use and one can get pretty amazing results.
With digital, one can instantly preview images, take many exposures and combine them in post-processing, and even shoot multiple images to create an HDR or a panoramic image. Modern digital cameras today have excellent dynamic range that far surpasses that of film and it is very easy to nail things like focusing and exposure, especially with the right gear and technique.
However, some photographers prefer to shoot landscapes with film using medium format and large format film cameras and if it is done right, it is possible to create spectacular images, with extreme detail and resolution. Film is certainly not for everyone, and the cost of owning and operating a large format film system can get quite high overtime, which is why most landscape photographers tend to use digital.
There are many different film systems out there at different price points. If you shoot medium format, Mamiya, Rollei and Hasselblad medium-format systems are quite popular. There are many large format systems out there and the more popular ones seem to be by Sinar and Linhof, but there are many more great choices and sizes. The selection of lenses for both medium and large format systems is also huge with big name brands like Nikon, Rodenstock and Schneider providing choices from wide angle to telephoto.
Easiness of use, low cost, relatively short learning curve, immediate results, free unlimited exposures and much shorter post-processing times are the reasons why full-frame and cropped sensor camera systems became so popular. An entry-level DSLR or a mirrorless camera with all required accessories for photographing landscapes can be purchased for under $1,000 today.
If one wants to step up to a full-frame camera, there are plenty of different high-resolution options from a number of different manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Pentax and Leica. And if that’s not enough, there are also medium format digital cameras available from companies like Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Phase One and Mamiya. There are plenty of choices for different needs and you will need to look into different options depending on your needs and your budget.
For those on tighter budgets, cheaper cropped sensor cameras are going to be less preferred, but most popular choices for landscape photography. Most popular because of lower cost, and less preferred due to typically minimal weather-sealing, potentially decreased dynamic range and a smaller feature set compared to higher-end options.
When photographing landscapes, you are often faced with harsh and extreme conditions, and you will need to be extra careful when photographing in dusty, rainy / humid, snowy and sub-zero temperatures in order to keep your equipment functioning. In comparison, higher-end cameras are often specifically designed with superb weather sealing to withstand the toughest weather conditions without negatively affecting their performance.
To sum it all up, here is how I would categorize cameras, in the order of preference for landscape photography:
- Medium format digital cameras
- High-resolution full-frame digital cameras with premium features and weather sealing
- Low cost full-frame digital cameras with sufficient weather sealing
- High-end cropped-sensor cameras with sufficient weather sealing
- Entry-level cropped-sensor cameras
Let’s now move on to lenses – a key part of the photography setup for landscapes.
Lenses and Why They are Important
No matter how good your camera is, if the lens you have mounted on it is poor, you will get equally poor results. Lenses are like your eyes – if you have bad vision, the picture you see is going to be blurry. Therefore, it is extremely important to use lenses that have high levels of sharpness across the frame, good contrast, minimal ghosting and flare and other lens aberrations that can hurt your images. It is also important to make sure that your lenses are free from decentering issues that could damage all or parts of your images.
When photographing portraits, the corner performance of lenses is typically not important – your subject is going to be close to the center of the frame most of the time. However, when it comes to landscape photography, corner sharpness becomes far more important, since foreground elements can be located on the lower part of the frame and sometimes even touch corners. That’s why it is important to look beyond center performance of lenses when evaluating them for landscape photography.
While selecting lenses, you have two selections – zoom lenses and prime / fixed lenses. For landscape photography, prime lenses used to be the number one choice (and still are for medium and large format cameras). However, with the latest advancements in optical technology, manufacturers are able to produce exceptionally good zoom lenses that can match and sometimes even surpass the quality and sharpness of some prime lenses.
Zoom lenses have a big advantage over prime lenses due to their ability to zoom in / out, which I personally find very important for landscape photography. I have been in many situations, where I had to stand at a particular spot and could not physically move to frame my shot. In such situations, it is helpful to be able to use a zoom lens to get proper framing. I personally often carry both with me, which gives me greater flexibility, but if I were to choose only one lens, it would certainly be a zoom. Unfortunately, for medium format and large format systems out there, prime lenses are often the only choices that are available.
Best Lenses for Landscape Photography
So, what are the best lenses for landscape photography? With so many different prime and zoom lenses available from a variety of different manufacturers, it can get quite difficult to make the right selection, especially for a beginner. Personally, instead of focusing on one do-it-all lens that covers everything from wide-angle to telephoto,
I would recommend to go for a set of high-quality lenses that will cover most of your needs. A good landscape photography lens kit should be comprised of a set of lenses from ultra-wide angle to telephoto. An ultra-wide angle lens will allow you to get close to subjects and show their grandeur; a normal range lens will probably be the most used lens in your arsenal for photographing most subjects, whereas a telephoto lens will allow you to focus on a particular feature of the landscape in front of you, or to perhaps photograph distant subjects.
To cover these needs, landscape photographers come up with their set of “trinity” lenses, such as 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. Such lenses are typically of very high quality and are considered to be professional-grade lenses. Those on tighter budgets or who want to stay light often end up going for slower f/4 lenses such as 16-35mm f/4, 24-120mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4, which can also be excellent choices for landscape photography. And those who shoot with cropped sensor cameras often end up with smaller and lighter lenses that cover similar equivalent focal lengths, such as 10-24mm, 16-85mm and 50-150mm, depending on sensor size / crop factor.
While such a “trinity” of zoom lenses can be very useful to cover most landscape photography needs, some prime lenses can be still very useful to have in the field. For example, if you want to get into astrophotography, you will need a high-quality lens that is both wide-enough and fast enough to be usable for capturing the night sky.
Zoom lenses, especially those that are f/4 and slower, are typically very limiting for astrophotography, which is why it is also helpful to have at least one prime lens in your camera bag. Personally, I really like the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens and find it to be an excellent, lightweight lens that can be very useful in the field for this reason. Those who prefer the quality of prime lenses to zooms will often end up going for a kit that is comprised of the following focal lengths: 14mm, 20mm, 35mm and 50mm. For telephoto needs, most prime shooters still opt for something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 or f/4, since prime telephoto lenses are often quite large and expensive.
If I was limited to choose only one lens for landscape photography, it would be something like a 24-120mm or a 24-105mm. Out of all the different lenses I have used over the years, I came to conclusion that the focal lengths I use the most for my landscape photography are between 24mm and 100mm. If I was limited to two lenses, I would add a 70-200mm and if the limit was increased to three, it would be a fast 20mm f/1.8 prime…
Camera Support – Tripods
A landscape photographer without a tripod is a handicapped photographer. Although modern digital cameras are capable of producing amazing results at higher ISOs, some images are difficult and sometimes even impossible to capture without proper support. For example, it is impossible to photograph the night sky without a tripod.
Photographing colorful clouds and the high dynamic range of scenes before and after sunsets would be extremely difficult without keeping camera mounted on a tripod. Another example is taking pictures of moving water (such as a waterfall) at slow shutter speeds. Basically, for any photography involving shutter speeds that are too slow for one to be able to hand-hold a camera without introducing camera shake, it is a good idea to use a tripod. Take a look at the below image that would have been impossible to capture hand-held:
As you can see, the image was captured with a shutter speed of 30 seconds – there is no way I could have held the camera in my hands for that long without making the image look blurry!
I personally consider a tripod to be a must-have tool rather than an optional accessory. I once talked to a well-known landscape photographer about camera support and he stated that he could not think or compose his images until he put his camera on a tripod, even when shooting on a bright sunny day. If you struggle with badly aligned, blurry or noisy images, you might want to invest in a solid tripod – it will pay for itself very quickly, especially once you factor in your travel expenses and your time!
Don’t go for a cheap, flimsy tripod either. If you are still trying to figure out if landscape photography is for you or not, then by all means, go for a cheap, plastic tripod when you start out. However, if landscape photography is something you are genuinely interested in, then skip everything in the middle and go for a high-end tripod. Over the years, you will go through many cameras and lenses, but a solid tripod is something you will always keep reusing – it is always a worthy long-term investment. Don’t make the mistake of buying several tripods. Not only will you end up wasting more money, but you will also end up with a lot of frustration in the field.
If you want to find out more about tripods and if you need help choosing a good tripod for your photography, check out my detailed “how to buy a tripod” article.
Filters and Why they are Important
Let’s now move on to filters. Any experienced landscape photographer will tell you that filters are an essential and integral part of their landscape photography kit. Some shots are simply impossible to capture without specialized filters. There are three types of filters that I personally recommend for landscape photography: Circular Polarizing Filter, Neutral Density Filter and Graduated Neutral Density Filter. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
Circular Polarizing Filter
Landscape photographers heavily rely on a Circular Polarizing Filter (CPL) for a number of reasons. CPL filters help reduce reflections, which helps in bringing out the subject. For example, if one photographs a scene after rain, reflections from the moist areas can really spoil the image, making it look rather distracting. With a CPL, it is possible to reduce and sometimes even eliminate most reflections in the scene, boosting colors and contrast. Take a look at the below image, captured with a polarizing filter:
The use of the CPL helped drastically reduce water reflections in the foliage right after rain, resulting in enhanced color and contrast. The CPL also helped bring out the colors of the rainbow, which glowed with deep red colors at sunset.
Here is an example of a waterfall that was captured with the same filter:
While you can see some reflections in the water, those reflections are actually heavily reduced, thanks to the CPL that I had mounted on my lens. If it wasn’t for the CPL, the brightness of the reflections coming from the rocks would have competed with the white color of the falling water, making the image look much worse in comparison.
Another reason why CPLs are useful, is because they can help significantly reduce atmospheric haze in images. Haze can be a real problem when photographing landscapes, so if one uses a CPL in the field, it is possible to cut it down quite a bit in camera and then reduce it even more in post-processing software. Take a look at the below image that I captured in Jordan with a CPL:
It was a very hazy day in Wadi Rum, so using a CPL was essential in order to bring out the features of the mountains in the distance.
Polarizing filters can be a bit challenging to use, especially for those who have never used them before. You also have to be very careful when deploying them on wide angle lenses. If you want to know more about polarizing filters, I have written a detailed article on how to use polarizing filters, with plenty of examples and useful information.
Neutral Density Filter
Do you know how images of waterfalls with silky and smooth-looking, milky water are captured? For many of such images, photographers intentionally use Neutral Density (ND) filters that only let very little light through, which basically increases the length of the exposure. While one could stop down their lens to a very small aperture in order to reduce the amount of light reaching the camera sensor, doing so often does not block enough light to make the water look smooth. Plus, small apertures result in less detail in images due to the effect of diffraction, so it is best to use a proper filter instead, while using the best aperture.
Using a dark neutral density filter requires a good support system, since shutter speed will decrease significantly, based on how much light the ND filter lets through. For example, a 6-stop ND filter that I use only transmits 1% of the light. With this little light getting through, the scene looks very dark when I look through the viewfinder and yet surprisingly, autofocus is still operational. 6 stops means that if I were shooting a scene at 1/250th of a second without a filter, the shutter speed would drop down to 1/4th of a second as soon as I mount the 6 stop ND filter on the lens. Here is an image that was captured using an ND filter in order to slow down the shutter speed of the camera to 6 seconds:
Some polarizing filters are dark enough on their own that you could just use them instead of using an ND filter to create beautiful waterfall images, instead of a combination of an ND + CPL.
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Graduated ND filters are similar to regular ND filters, except they gradually go from dark to completely clear. This gradual transition is important for landscapes, because it should only darken the brightest area of the scene without touching the darker parts of the scene such as the foreground. Although a lot of photographers seem to be utilizing HDR and blending techniques to capture the full dynamic range of the scene today, I personally prefer to use Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters whenever possible.
For example, if I am photographing a sunrise or sunset and the sky is several stops brighter than the foreground, I will use my 0.6 (2 stop) or 0.9 (3 stop) Graduated ND filter to darken the sky. Take a look at the below image of a filter holder with a GND on it:
As you can see, the filter transitions from dark on the top to completely clear on the bottom, with a gradual transition in the middle. This is what allows some of the light to be blocked by the filter. Now let’s take a look at how it can affect an image:
The above image would have been very difficult to capture without a GND filter, because the sky was so much brighter compared to the foreground. By holding a 3-stop GND filter in front of the lens, I was able to bring down the brightness of the sky and preserve its colors.
Without a filter, I would have been forced to bracket my shots in order to create an HDR or blend images in Photoshop, which would have taken me more time and effort.
One major hassle with GND filters, is that they take up more space than CPLs do, since they are larger rectangular filters (there are some circular GNDs out there, but you should not use those). Why? Because with rectangular filters you are able to control the point from which the scene will turn from dark into clear. In one scene, the sky might take up 20% of the image, while in another one with beautiful clouds it might take up 50% or more of the image.
That’s where you will need to move the graduated filter up and down to accommodate different situations. In order to be able to do this, you will need a filter holder system with rectangular filters. I personally use the NiSi Filter Holder system, but there are many others to choose from.
Here is the list of the filters I recommend and personally use:
- B+W 77mm Kaeseman CPL MRC Nano Glass Filter
- B+W 77mm ND MRC Nano 1.8 Filter (6 Stops)
- B+W 77mm ND MRC Nano 3.0 Filter (10 Stops)
- NiSi Filter Holder System + NiSi Glass Filters
Now that you know what camera gear you need, let’s move on to the fun part – photo technique, which is comprised of three parts: Camera Gear Technique, Composition and Post-Processing. These three elements are all equally important in landscape photography and you have to master them all in order to be able to produce great-looking images that you could potentially showcase and even sell.
Camera Gear Technique
The first thing you need to learn how to use properly, is obviously your camera. If you have never used a DSLR or a mirrorless camera before, get prepared for an intensive learning process. First, you need to master the three pillars of photography: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Once you get a good grasp of these individually, you will then need to understand how they work together. Next, I would start reading up on such basics as Exposure Stops, camera modes, metering modes and RAW vs JPEG.
If you are able to comfortably shoot in Manual Mode while being able to adjust the exposure by increasing/decreasing the ISO, your basic knowledge of the camera is pretty solid.
What are the optimal camera settings for photographing landscapes? Here are the settings that I personally use and recommend (good for most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras):
- Camera Mode: Manual. Learn how to shoot landscapes in manual mode. Use the built-in camera meter to see if you need to increase or decrease the shutter speed.
- Aperture: Start at f/5.6 and stop down based on how much of the foreground and background you need to keep sharp. Try not to shoot beyond f/8 (on APS-C sensor cameras) and f/11 (on full-frame) to avoid diffraction.
- Shutter Speed: Doesn’t matter, since you will be using a tripod and adjusting the shutter speed based on what your camera meters. In some cases, when you need to freeze or blur movement, you will have to adjust the shutter speed accordingly by changing aperture and / or ISO, or by using a filter.
- ISO: Whatever your camera’s base ISO is (typically ISO 64 or ISO 100). If you have a setting for “Auto ISO” on your camera, turn it off.
- Image Format: Obviously RAW, Lossless Compressed or Uncompressed (if Lossless Compressed is not available). Set camera bit-rate to the highest number (if available). Many professional cameras allow shooting 14-bit RAW.
- White Balance: Auto, since it doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW – you can easily change White Balance in post-production.
- Color Profile: Doesn’t matter, but you might want to choose AdobeRGB for slightly more accurate histograms.
- High ISO Noise Reduction: Off, you should not be shooting at high ISOs anyway.
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction: On, since it helps reduce noise when shooting long exposures. This setting affects the actual RAW file, so it is a good idea to keep it on by default.
- Vignette Reduction and Other Lens Corrections: Off, best to deal with it in post-production.
- Back Button Focusing: Move your focusing from the shutter release button to a dedicated button on the back of your camera (see focus and recompose). Some cameras might not have this feature, but most do. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras either have a dedicated AF-ON button or an AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera that can be programmed for autofocus. By switching focusing to a dedicated button, you can focus just once with your thumb, then continue taking pictures without needing to refocus each time. Keep in mind that if you change the focal length of the lens by zooming in / out, you will need to re-acquire focus each time!
- Autofocus: It is up to you whether to keep autofocus on, or switch to manual focus. No matter which focusing method you choose, make sure to use your camera’s live view screen to zoom in tight and focus accurately.
Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance
When you photograph landscapes, it is vital to understand the concept of depth of field very well. One of the biggest challenges of landscape photography is to master lens focus and make everything look acceptably sharp. Why is that a challenge, you might ask? Because optics have certain limitations and it is not always possible to bring everything from foreground to background into perfect focus, especially when some objects are very close and others are very far. A good way to illustrate this is to do a quick experiment with your eyes. You will need two objects that can stand on a flat surface – a small and a large object (like a dice and a box of playing cards). Place the larger object vertically about 10 feet away from where you are on a straight surface like a table.
Then move back to your position and while holding the smaller object with your index and thumb fingers, extend your hand half way, pointing it towards the larger object. Focus your eyes on the smaller object. Note how blurry the background is and how blurry the larger object is, almost to the point where it blends with other background objects. Now, take the smaller object and place it by the larger object and move back again to your position. Take a look at the smaller object from this distance now. This time, you will notice that both objects look sharp to you and even if you move the smaller object a little away from the larger one, it will not make a difference. The larger object will not get completely blurred like it did when you looked at the smaller object from a close distance. This very simple experiment demonstrates how lenses focus and how subject distance impacts sharpness.
While our eyes work like a fixed 50mm lens, camera lenses allow us to capture much wider perspectives, or allow us to get “closer” to our subjects. Without understanding the relationship between lens focal length, aperture and camera to subject distance, focusing for landscape photography can get rather difficult. For example, if you were photographing a starfish on a beach from a close distance and wanted to get the background horizon to be equally sharp as the starfish, which would you focus on – the starfish or the background? Would you be using a wide-angle or a telephoto lens to get both in focus? What aperture would you be using? A good landscape photographer should know answers to all of these questions and come up with the right solution to the problem. For example, I would have certainly used a wide-angle lens (since longer focal lengths would only isolate the subject more), a relatively small aperture between f/8 and f/16 and would have focused on an area somewhere between the starfish and the background. Where exactly would I focus? This is where you need to understand hyperfocal distance and how to find it.
What is hyperfocal distance? Basically, hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance that gives your photos the greatest depth of field. When you focus your camera on the hyperfocal distance, everything from half of the distance all the way to infinity will be in focus. For example, if my hyperfocal distance is 50 feet, everything from 25 feet to infinity will be in focus. Why is hyperfocal distance important? In the previous example with starfish, if I focused my camera on the starfish or the background (infinity), either the starfish or the background would have been blurry. I want both to look sharp, so if I knew where the hyperfocal distance is and I focused on it, I could potentially get to the point where both appear sharp. Obviously, my camera to subject distance, lens focal length, sensor size and aperture are all variables that play a huge role here, so I will need to look into those very carefully in order to reach my goal. The camera to subject distance is especially important – if the subject is way too close, no combination of aperture and focal length will lead to a sharp photo…
The best way to calculate hyperfocal distance is to use the “double the distance method“, where you approximate the distance from your camera to the nearest subject you want to be sharp, then simply double that distance. In the example with the starfish, if I knew that the starfish was 5 feet away from my camera, the hyperfocal distance would be at 10 feet (double distance), as simple as that! From there, I would have to roughly estimate where the 10 foot mark is for me to focus on (say a piece of rock in sand), then use my camera’s live view screen to focus on that rock and I’m set. With my hyperfocal distance in the right spot of the frame, I would have to play with my camera’s aperture to get to the point where everything looks reasonably sharp. If I’m maxed out on aperture and the scene is still not sharp, then I’m simply too close to the subject. I either have to use a wider lens, or physically move away from the subject.
Some photographers give advice to focus somewhere in the middle of the frame or a third of the way, without knowing all the variables mentioned above. I would be careful listening to such advice, since you will often end up getting yourself frustrated with blurry images. The double the distance method works very well and it is easy to use in the field.
Bear in mind that hyperfocal distance calculators are not designed for modern high resolution digital cameras, so I wouldn’t recommend them for landscape photography (see Spencer’s article on why hyperfocal distance charts are wrong). In addition, why waste your time looking things up, if all you have to do is estimate the distance to your subject and then double it? It is simple and it works!
When you face tough lighting situations, where you have a huge difference in contrast between the darks and the whites, shoot in brackets of 3 to 5 (depending on your camera capabilities). Bracketing not only allows you to try post-processing techniques like HDR, but it also gives you options for better exposure (see Iliah Borg’s excellent article “when in doubt, bracket“). You might choose one exposure over another and then further work on it in Lightroom or Photoshop. You might pick some parts of one image and merge them with another image using masking and other blending techniques in Photoshop or other software. Simply put, you will have more options to recover information from your images.
Composition and Framing
Composition is a key element of every type of photography, including landscape photography. Without good composition, pictures can look plain, lifeless and boring. How should you compose your images and are there any rules for composition? What is good and bad composition? How should you frame your shots? I get these kinds of questions from our readers all the time, so I decided to write about it in more detail in this article.
When it comes to composition and framing there are no real set “rules” per se. However, there are some tips and suggestions that might help with composing and framing your images better. Here are some of my guidelines:
- Communicate through your photographs – every photograph should have a particular message attached to it. What are you trying to say? What is your story? What is the mood of your photograph? Will the viewer feel amused by the power of nature that you are trying to show, or feel crushed by the dark, dreadful clouds in your image? Or perhaps the viewer should just enjoy the beauty of the colors you are trying to show? Your image needs to be able to communicate and bond with the viewer, triggering their emotions.
- Identify your subject(s) – every photograph should contain the most prominent / important subject you are trying to show to your viewer, which is your primary subject. There might be other secondary, tertiary and supporting elements in the scene as well. Learn how to properly identify the most important subjects in your images. Once you do that, you will be able to compose your images better, because you will be paying close attention to your subjects.
- Scout the area beforehand – you never know what might be around you. Scout the area before the best light kicks in and find the best spots to be in. How many times have you been in situations where the light is perfect, the subject is perfect, but you are standing in a bad spot? Avoid those kinds of problems by doing the homework early.
- Slow down and be patient – if you are not photographing wildlife or other fast-moving elements, slow down and take the time to compose your shot. Wait for the right moment, the right light and be patient. Take pictures, then wait more – your best photo might be minutes or seconds away.
- Align / level your photograph before taking a picture – while composing, make sure that your frame is properly aligned. If it is not, you will have to align it in post-production and you will ultimately lose some of the image. I personally use the horizontal and vertical lines inside my viewfinder to align my camera most of the time, which works great.
- Avoid always placing your primary subject in the center – many beginners do this a lot, and while there is nothing wrong with center composition, placing your subjects off center might make your image look a bit more dynamic and interesting. Check out the rule of thirds and give it a try. Here is an image where I used the rule of thirds to compose it:
- Shapes and curves – try to locate curved shapes (especially the ones with an “S” shape) as part of your composition – they look much more pleasing to the eye. Here is an example of a curved road that has a beautifully curved road as part of the composition:
- When photographing mirror reflections, make sure that nothing disturbs the primary subject or its reflection – I remember when I posted one of the images of Maroon Bells with a log in the reflection in a photography forum a long time ago, one well-known photographer criticized the image, saying that I should not have included the log in the frame. Here is that image:
Besides being an over-cooked / over-saturated image (back then I liked the Saturation slider in Lightroom way too much), the big straight log that cuts through the image destroys the essence of the photograph, becoming an ugly part of the image (which at the time, I thought was a nice composition element). The attention of the viewer is no longer on the primary subject (which is the beautiful set of triangular mountains and their reflection), but rather on the large log. Now take a look at the below image that does not have any disturbing elements in the reflection:
Looks much better, doesn’t it? You can concentrate on looking at the beautiful mountains and their reflection, without getting disturbed by other unnecessary objects in the scene.
- Balance your shot through symmetry – one more thing to keep in mind when photographing landscapes, especially reflections, is to achieve a “balance” – one part of the image should not heavily outweigh the other. You can achieve this through symmetry, as shown in the above image of Maroon Bells.
- Fit main subjects in the frame – if you have trees, single bushes or other objects in your corner frame, try to either fit them into the frame, or exclude them completely. There will be situations when it is too difficult or impossible to do that, but try your best to fit everything in the frame.
As you can see from the above image, I tried my best to fit everything that I considered to be important in the image, whether it is the elongated rock on the bottom left side of the frame, the bush below it, or the yucca on the bottom right side of the frame. Since the large rocks to the right side of the frame were not the key elements of my image, I felt that it was OK to cut into them with my framing. The primary subject here is obviously the split rock, followed by the large green plant below it that serves as my secondary subject, whereas other elements in the scene serve as tertiary and supporting elements.
- Carefully frame your shot – when I started out my journey in photography, I rarely ever paid attention to proper framing – I would just point my camera and take a picture. I ended up with thousands of useless pictures… It is very unfortunate, because I had very unique moments with beautiful sunsets, cloud formations and good light, but just because of my own errors, those pictures are all useless. Learn how to properly frame your shots and think before you press the camera shutter. Don’t just point and shoot like you used to before, but think about your subject, lighting, composition and framing.
- Don’t get stuck with horizontals – I personally prefer taking horizontal images of landscape, but I do take a lot of verticals as well. In some cases, try doing both and give yourself a chance to choose which one is better later. Sometimes vertical shots communicate better than horizontals. Also, when you print your work, you might want to have a mix of both verticals and horizontals.
- Don’t let tall trees and other large objects touch the frame – leave some “breathing” space. Even very little free space is better than none. Take a look at this example:
The tip of the mountain is almost touching the top frame, which is not good. If I had some clouds that day, I would have probably included more of the sky, but I purposefully reduced the sky to have the viewer concentrate on the old building with the walking man. While I still left some space in between the mountain and the top of the frame, there isn’t enough “breathing space” between the two.
- Be careful when using ultra-wide angle lenses – ultra-wide angle lenses always make the foreground objects much larger than they are and make the background look much smaller. For example, take a look at this shot:
Do you think it is possible for the rock in the foreground to be larger in size than the hill in the distance? Of course not! But that’s what wide-angle lenses do – they make subjects at close distances appear enormously large compared to everything else in the background. Step away from your subjects and they become minuscule, disappearing with the background and leaving a ton of empty space. Wide-angle lenses can create stunning images, but you need to know how to properly use them by getting closer to your primary subject and paying close attention to the background and framing. Lastly, be careful when using fisheye-type lenses – if you don’t pay close attention and you angle your camera a bit too low, you might end up with your own feet in your images!
- Keep it simple – avoid adding too many distracting and busy elements to your images. Sometimes simplicity is the key to a good composition:
- Diagonal compositions – if you come across straight lines in a landscape, experiment with diagonal composition. In some cases, you might be able to convert an otherwise boring scene to a more dynamic and interesting photograph:
- Try multiple lines for composition – sometimes a mix of straight and diagonal lines in the scene at different angles can give a different feel and dynamic to an image:
In the above scene, two lines are formed by the evergreen trees, which I also used as references for establishing a horizon line. The third line is formed by the small stream in the foreground, which helps add interest to the foreground of the scene.
- Use elements in the scene to add depth – when thinking about your subjects in your compositions, you might want to position them in a way that adds depth to your photographs. This is especially important when using wide-angle lenses:
One can easily tell that the large boulders in the above image are located in different areas of the scene, which adds depth to the photograph.
- Look for patterns and lines – always be on the lookout for patterns and lines in the scene.
- Use tighter framing – if you have a zoom lens, you can often improve your composition by moving away from your subject and zooming in tighter in order to eliminate other distractions around the subject.
For the above shot, I zoomed in to 70mm with my Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens to focus on the part of the mountain that was visible. If I used shorter focal length, other parts of the mountain would have become visible, which is not what I wanted.
- Get those “S” curves – as I have already pointed out above, curves always look better than straight lines, especially the “S” curves:
- Recurrence of objects/elements – another interesting concept that you can apply to your composition, is recurrence of objects or elements in your photograph. The element of recurrence itself is not always important – you can do this with fences, electric poles, trees, buildings, etc. Here is an example of recurrence:
- Try taking panoramic images – rather than being stuck with square or rectangular images, try shooting panoramic images. You can either crop images to be panoramic (see below on cropping) or you can shoot a bunch of vertical or horizontal frames and then stitch them together in Photoshop or other third party software. I have a detailed guide on how to photograph panoramas and you can find plenty of information on how to properly photograph panoramas there.
While the above composition guidelines are there to help you, feel free to play around and do something different – after-all, photographs are created by your vision and your creativity.
Post-processing is an integral part of landscape photography. I remember once seeing a small photography contest online and one of the rules said to submit only original, untouched photographs. Apparently, contest organizers thought that post-processing images was an unfair practice and they did not want one person to have an advantage over another, just because of better Photoshop skills. I personally think that such rules are silly. Is it unfair when one photographer can use Photoshop better than another? Ansel Adams, the master of landscape photography was a darkroom magician. He spent countless hours working on his images and I am sure that if he was alive today, he would have loved Photoshop! How are Ansel’s post-processing skills in the darkroom different than someone’s Photoshop skills? Knowing how to post-process images is a big part of every photographer’s life today. And that’s a fact.
At the same time, you hear many photographers say “do everything right in camera”. I mostly agree with this statement – when it comes to landscape photography, it is best to minimize post-processing efforts and do as much as possible in the camera. It is one thing to photograph a scene with a heavily overexposed sky, thinking you can fix it later in Photoshop and another to use filters and other tools to expose the sky at least partially right, so that you could finish it up in Lightroom/Photoshop. Some things like the effect of a polarizing filter cannot be replicated in post-processing. Other things take enormous amounts of time to fix. Just learn to balance your workflow and you should be in good shape.
When it comes to cropping, I highly recommend minimizing your cropping efforts for landscape photography if you shoot digital. The main reason is that cropping results in smaller images, which results in reduced resolution and smaller prints. If you are just posting images for the web you can certainly crop as much as you want, but what if somebody gets interested in buying a large print of your photograph after seeing it online? That’s where cropping might hurt your image. If you shoot medium format or large format, you have a lot more resolution, so slight cropping is generally not a problem. But I would still frame your images right from the very beginning, instead of having to resort to cropping later. The type of cropping you certainly want to avoid, is cutting verticals out of a horizontal image and vice versa – you will lose half of your resolution (if not more) by doing that. Aligning and leveling images also results in cropping and losing resolution. Therefore, as I have recommended above under “composition”, you should always align and level your camera before taking pictures.
Other than that, very slight cropping to improve your composition and remove clutter is quite normal. I personally do crop some images when necessary as well.
Sharpness and Why it is Important
While sharpness does not matter as much for certain types of photography, it certainly carries a lot of weight in landscape photography. A sharp landscape image is always better to look at than a blurry or a fuzzy image – it communicates good technique by the photographer, gives a more realistic feeling to objects and just looks more pleasing to the eye. Having good sharpness across the frame requires the following:
- A good lens that is able to resolve a lot of detail and is sharp from center to corners.
- A high-quality film or digital camera with plenty of resolution.
- Good camera technique by the photographer that can set proper exposure, acquire correct focus and eliminate camera shake.
- Good post-processing skills by the photographer for adding additional sharpening for printing/publishing.
All of the above depend on each other. You might have the best post-processing skills, but if your lens is soft, you will never be able to get sharp results. Similarly, you might have the sharpest lens in the world and yet if you cannot set the right exposure settings and focus correctly, you will end up with a blurry image that you cannot fix by sharpening in post.
If you have the right gear and camera technique, sharpening images in post-processing is easy. Take a look at my article on how to sharpen images in Lightroom to get an idea. You can also use special plugins in Photoshop for selective sharpening, which work great.
Other than sharpening and cropping, there are many different ways to improve your photographs. You can darken the sky and make it look more blue, you can saturate some of the colors, you can add more contrast to your images, you can convert images to black and white and much much more. I am not going to go through all of these techniques, since there is just too much to cover, but you can get started by checking out our my Landscape Photography Post-Processing Tutorial in Lightroom and Five Ways to Improve Your Photos in Post-Processing, where I share some simple techniques to make your landscape photographs look better. You can find some other tutorials in our growing “Post-Processing Tips” section.
Here are some additional post-processing tips for landscape photography:
- Be careful with dark shadows in the scene – while shadows are a normal fact of life, don’t let the shadows steal your viewer’s attention. Make sure that shadows do not occupy too much space, or they will spoil your image. Also, if your shadows are too dark, try to lighten them up either by adjusting the exposure or in post-production. In Lightroom, you can use the “Shadows” slider to add some light to the shadows. Don’t overdo it though – you still want shadows to look like shadows. That’s one of the biggest problems with HDR photography – the shadows rarely look real. Here is an example of a shadow eating up half of the image:
Although I did brighten up the shadows a little, the image still looks unbalanced and the shadows are too distracting to the eye.
- Don’t oversaturate your images – it is very common for photographers to purposefully oversaturate images. I personally used to oversaturate images a lot in the past. Now, when I go back and look at them, I realize that I should have taken it easy on colors. In some cases, you might actually need to desaturate some colors or the entire image. Here is an example of an over-saturated image that I shot a couple of years ago:
It is actually not just over-saturated, but also underexposed. Sometimes underexposing can result in too much color saturation as well.
- Don’t overexpose – always make sure to expose to the right correctly, so that you don’t end up with overexposed images. Overexposed parts of images are impossible to recover in post-processing, since there is no information in them. If a scene has too much contrast, always bracket your images.
When you work on your images, make sure that your monitor is calibrated. You do not want to be editing images using a non-calibrated monitor, because your colors might be way off. I have an article on “How to Calibrate Your Monitor“, in case you do not know where to start.
Let’s move on to Light – the third most important element of landscape photography. I know many photographers will argue that it is the “first” in terms of importance – and I agree. Although photo equipment and skill/technique are certainly important, no photograph can look good without beautiful light. Portrait photographers can work with pretty much any light, because they have powerful external flashes that can imitate natural light. Landscape photographers do not have such luxury – we have to work with the available light all the time (except when painting some foreground objects with flashlight).
What is the best light? What are the best times of the day? Or best times of the year? Let’s see if I can answer some of these in more detail.
Sunrise and Sunset
The best landscape pictures are either taken at sunrise or sunset. I personally prefer sunrise/early morning light than sunset/late afternoon light, because it seems like there is less haze in the morning (obviously depends on many factors, pollution, wind, wildfires, etc). But it all depends on the direction of the subject I want to photograph. In Colorado, some mountains are best photographed at sunrise, while others are best photographed at sunset. Before you decide when to be at a particular location, I would highly recommend scouting the area first. Mid-afternoon is a good time to scout and estimate where the sun will rise and where it will set. I personally rely on some apps for my iPhone to tell me when the sun rises/sets and where in the horizon the sun will show up and where it will set. My favorite app is PhotoPills – I simply set my location and it tells me everything I need to know.
When people ask photographers about the best light, the typical answer is “early in the morning or late afternoon, with the worst light at mid-afternoon”. While it is true for many locations around the world, the statement is not necessarily correct for some regions. For example, if you live in Nordic countries or shoot in Antarctica, you could shoot all day long with great light. How? It is all about the angle of light in relation to the sun. Direct sunlight that we typically see in the mid-day is the worst, because it creates straight and ugly shadows. But if sunlight is always at an angle, there is no bad time for taking pictures. Sunrise and sunset times are the best, because you see the most amount of colors. So if you asked me when the best light is, I would say “it depends on where you are located”.
What about seasons? Again, it depends on where you are. In Colorado, for example, mid-summer is a great time for landscape photography because of wildflowers that bloom in mid-July at high altitudes. In other places, summers are horrible due to heat, too much haze and harsh light. Winters in Colorado are typically hard to photograph due to harsh weather, snow, ice and dangerous road conditions. And yet winters are the best in terms of haze and angle of the sun. Spring and Fall are typically my favorite seasons to photograph landscapes everywhere, not just Colorado. The fall season is something you do not want to miss, especially in places with lots of non-evergreen trees. Some trees and plants go through dramatic color changes. For example, aspen changes its colors several times before the leaves fall off – from dark green to light green, then from light green to yellow, then from yellow to red. In some cases you might even see brown leaves, if there is no wind.
Spring is also great in many ways, with fruit trees and flowers having the most beautiful blooming season.