Basic Landscape Photography

I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but a lot of people seem to like the photographs I take, so I must be doing something right. Assuming that’s the case, I’d like to offer some tips and hints for those wanting to improve or develop their landscape photography skills. This is the first in a series of several articles which I hope will help you, the reader, to take better photographs.

Composition is perhaps the most critical element of a good landscape photo. I have seen countless images – which I’m sure the photographer thought were lovely scenes - that were so poorly composed that the overall effect was bland and completely uninteresting. Many photographers simply aim their lens at a scenic view and press the shutter, without considering whether they are capturing anything of real interest, or whether the subject is chosen and viewed from the proper angle and distance for maximum impact. Photos of fields and trees, or vistas from hilltops looking out over forested parklands, may be pretty to look at, but they often make poor photographs.

The key to landscape composition is to have a clear and well-defined center of interest, a visual “hook” to grab a viewer’s attention and draw him into the photo. This can be a mountain, a tree, a river, even a rock, but it needs to be clear to the viewer that this a photo OF something, not just a pointless click of the shutter. Of course, as with most photography, it’s best to use the “rule of thirds” when composing, so that the focal point of the image is not smack in the middle of the photo. Images are more pleasing to look at when the subject is a little off-center. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, a somewhat asymmetrical composition works better than one that’s perfectly centered. In this image, the primary point of interest is the mountain, and its reflection in the lake. There is no doubt in a viewer’s mind what this is about, and the various layers of light and imagery invite the viewer to look deeper into the photo.

Basic Landscape Photography - Image 1

Good landscape photos also lead the viewer into the image by using elements of the scene to draw the viewer’s eye and interest. A river, a road, a ridgeline, even a line of trees or clouds can serve this purpose. Often, having a strong secondary point of interest in the foreground can serve to balance the image, and provide a sense of depth and scale that would otherwise be missing. A mountain in the distance, for instance, is just a mountain. But include some foreground interest, such as rocks, wildflowers, or a lake, and the image gains depth and scale, and the foreground elements lead the viewer to the mountain in a natural visual progression from near to far. This photo of Mt. Baker illustrates how foreground elements can work to add depth and interest to an image. The bright fall colors in the foreground add interest, and the valley and shadows add depth and draw the viewer’s eye up to the snow-capped peak. Even the tree in the middle distance acts to lead the eye into the photo.

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Landscape photographers must select their vantage point with care to achieve the perspective and composition they want. A famous photographer once said, “If your subject is too small, you’re too far away!.” Using zoom lenses can sometimes compensate for that, but – as we’ll see below – there are disadvantages to using longer lenses, and most landscape photographers will “zoom with their feet” to get closer – or farther away, if that’s what’s needed - to achieve the composition they want. Sometimes something as simple as moving to one side, or taking the photo from a higher or lower angle, can make a dramatic difference. Really good landscape photographs are seldom produced by standing alongside the road, or taking photos from the window of the car. It’s a rare scene that cannot be improved by moving your position to gain a more dramatic viewpoint. In this image of West Mitten Butte in Monument Valley, AZ, I wanted something other than the standard view of the rock formation, so I moved my shooting position to place the juniper in the foreground and to one side, to lend foreground interest and to lend texture and balance to the composition.

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The subject of your photo, obviously, needs to be in focus. I’ve seen many images ruined because the photographer composed the shot well, but failed to properly lock his focus on the subject, resulting in an image that just didn’t look right. A few words about depth of field (DOF) are probably in order here. Experienced photographers know that a smaller aperture (larger ƒ-number) will result in greater depth of field, and more of the image will be clear. In landscape work, most of the time, we want the image to be sharp from foreground back, or at least enough so that we don’t strain our eyes trying to bring things into focus. Many photographic styles work well with a blurred background (often called “bokeh”), but landscapes are usually not among them.

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To keep the depth of field as great as possible, use the smallest aperture consistent with good image quality. With dSLRs, the best image quality is usually obtained with apertures between ƒ/8 and ƒ/16; above ƒ/16 or so, while DOF still increases (to a point), image quality often starts to degrade, though it usually isn’t noticeable in most normal print sizes. Fortunately, the DOF at these apertures, with typical landscape lenses, is usually adequate for most scenic work. Telephoto lenses tend to reduce the DOF relative to the subject, while wider lenses increase it. Since landscapes are generally shot with lenses having a focal length between 10 and 50mm (depending on the camera), adequate DOF isn’t usually hard to achieve, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Some photographers go so far as to actually calculate the “hyperfocal distance” for their lens and aperture before taking a shot. Hyperfocal distance is a distance at which a lens can be focused, where everything from half that distance to infinity will be acceptably clear. This distance varies widely, depending on the lens and aperture settings. Hyperfocal distance is calculated by dividing the square of the focal length by the product of the ƒ-number and the maximum diameter of the “circle of confusion,” usually accepted as .03mm. Without getting into too many esoteric definitions, the hyperfocal distance for a 50mm lens at ƒ/16 can be calculated as follows: 50mm squared, divided by (16x.03) = 2500mm/.48, which equals 5,208mm. Thus, for this lens and aperture, the hyperfocal distance is 5.2 meters, about 17 feet. If a 50m lens at ƒ/16 is focused at this distance, everything from about 8 feet or so to infinity will be acceptably sharp. Changing the aperture in this equation to ƒ/8 instead of ƒ/16 results in a hyperfocal distance of ~10,000mm, or about 10 meters (33 feet), and anything closer than half that distance will not be sharp. If we use a 200mm lens instead of 50mm, the hyperfocal distance at ƒ/16 becomes 83 meters, or about 275 feet! Conversely, for a 28mm lens – a very common focal length for landscape work – at ƒ/16, the hyperfocal distance is only a little over 5 feet. Between the wider field of view and the vastly greater depth of field, it’s easy to see why landscape photographers prefer shorter focal lengths and smaller apertures!

Experienced photographers also know that while a smaller aperture is desirable for depth and clarity, it also reduces shutter speed. That’s why top landscape photographers almost always use tripods. While I’ve seen – and in some cases taken – a number of good, sharp landscapes “hand-held,” it’s always a good idea to have a sturdy tripod for this kind of work. Since the best landscape photos are taken at small apertures and often with slower shutter speeds, the added stability of a tripod is extremely helpful in capturing a clear, sharp image. Even on a tripod, however, care must be taken not to move the camera at slower shutter speeds. A useful and inexpensive addition to your kit is a remote shutter release, which allows you to actuate the shutter without physically touching – and possibly moving – the camera.

Speaking of shutter speeds, the old rule of thumb from film cameras still applies. To avoid camera shake when hand-holding a camera, the shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the lens focal length. For instance, if you’re using a 50mm lens, the shutter speed must be no slower than 1/50 second. Since most cameras don’t have a shutter speed of 1/50, the wise photographer selects settings that will produce the next faster shutter speed, which is usually 1/60. As a practical matter, under normal daylight conditions, I would recommend a tripod for any shutter speed slower than 1/250. Some higher-end lenses come with image stabilization which allows the user to shoot freehand at shutter speeds well below what this rule of thumb dictates, but don’t rely too much on technology to take the place of careful planning and attention to detail. It’s all too easy, with modern digital equipment, to simply let the camera do it all, but that’s not the way we learn, and it’s certainly not the way to become a better photographer.

A quick word about lighting is in order as well. Landscape photographers know that the best times of day to shoot outdoors are early morning and late afternoon. This is because the light is softer and the highlights less harsh. The light at the ends of the day tends to have a mellow, often golden quality that warms the tones and makes subjects almost seem to glow. And there’s often a stillness in the early morning and evening that is hard to find in the middle of the day, especially when shooting over water where reflections can add so much to a photograph. Needless to say, always try to shoot with the sun either behind you, or to one side, for the best results. The one obvious exception is when shooting sunsets, but the best results there come 15-30 minutes after the sun actually goes down, so there’s typically not a problem with lens flare. Of course, that lovely, soft, early morning or late afternoon light can also require longer exposures, so a tripod is a must for good results. This image of a rural scene shows how lighting can add to a photo. This image of hoodoos in Bryce Canyon is greatly enhanced by the early morning light (the photo was shot at about 6:45 AM), and the lower angle of the sun made for softer light that reflected from the rock formations and produced amazing colors. At midday, the harsh light and shadows make shots like this impossible.

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I have just touched on a few of the basic elements of landscape photography here; obviously, there are many more factors that can affect the quality of the image, such as filters, lens selection, etc. But those subjects are beyond the scope of this article. For now, if you, the reader, have gained some insight into the basics of composition and the use of DOF in your landscape photography, you will be well on your way to shooting better pictures… and enjoying your hobby more than ever!