Who doesn’t love a beautiful landscape photo? The colors, the beauty, the sense of peace and calm — or even excitement and danger, in some cases! Landscapes are something that anyone can appreciate, but making a great one isn’t as simple as pressing the shutter button.

Let’s talk about Timing

Obviously if you want to capture a sunrise photo, you have to be awake at sunrise, and for sunset, well, the same. Since being awake in the evening is bit easier than being up and ready early in the morning (which of course means being awake well before sunrise!), it should come as no surprise that there are twice as many sunset photos as sunrise photos on Flickr!

But what about shooting in the middle of the day? While it can certainly be done (remember, there are no rules that can’t be broken!), it’s definitely less than ideal. Your shadows are harsh, the dynamic range (difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene) are at their most extreme, and the light has a very common color temperature to it. Part of what makes a photo interesting is its uniqueness. In any given day, there’s are two brief “Golden hours” (the time around sunrise and sunset when the sunlight is warm and gold), yet there are many, many more hours of “normal” light. We all see that normal daylight, well, all day long. So a sunrise or sunset is more unique. Also, even the most beautiful blue sky is just a big gradient of blue, from a little lighter to a little darker. But a sunset can be orange and red and gold and purple, and those colors are often more rich and saturated. Yum!

Exception: Shoot when it’s overcast or rainy, and time of day doesn’t matter. You’ll get the same flat light no matter what time it is. This can be a big advantage, depending on what your goal is. When the light is flat and grey, you don’t have harsh shadows, so you can really manipulate the image easily to make it look truly unique!

We just talked a lot about the sky, but this article is about landscapes! OK yes, but most landscapes have at least some sky in the photo, and you’re going to be relying on the light from the sky to illuminate your landscape, even if the sky isn’t in it. Which brings us back to time of day. The best time to shoot is typically “golden hour” and “blue hour”. Golden hour is the brief time right around both sunset and sunrise, when the sun is still low and the light is warm and golden. Depending on where you are in the world, Golden hour can be very very brief or quite long. Blue hour, the time between dark and sunrise and again between sunset and dark, can be quite a challenge. It’s very dark, requiring long exposures and/or higher ISO, but some beautiful colors can be found then, too.

Sunrise… yes it’s early, and it may be cold, but it’s always worth it!

Blue hour. OK technically this isn’t a landscape, it’s more of a cityscape, but you get the idea!

WHAT lens should you use ?

When it comes to lens selection for landscape photography, most people instinctively reach for the widest angle lens they have. Which makes sense, because there’s so much to see in a big wide landscape, and hey don’t you want to see it all, and replicate that feeling of being there? Well, unless you plan to make a wall-sized print, that huge vista squeezed onto a little screen isn’t going to feel quite so impressive. So consider using a longer lens! A telephoto lens will let you bring individual, beautiful elements of the landscape closer to you, filling the frame, which then makes for a compelling image on screen or print. The lens I use the most for landscape photography is the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 (that’s a very common 70-200mm full-frame equivalent).

This is shot with a long (telephoto) lens. Yes, everything around it was beautiful, too. But by focusing on just part of the scene, I’m able to focus the viewer’s attention on what I want them to see. Also, the dotted lines are at the ⅓ and ⅔ positions. Notice that the scene is largely divided into these three segments quite evenly… the mountains at the top, the homes and trees in the middle, and the vineyards in the bottom.

Don’t forget the tripod!

Even if you’re shooting with plenty of light to have a fast enough exposure to hand hold, having a tripod does several things for you. It forces you to slow down and think about your composition a bit more. Also, because the camera doesn’t move between shots, you can more easily make small adjustments to dial in the shot just how you want it. Next, even if you don’t need to make a long exposure, you may want to so you can shoot at higher depth of field or even to capture movement (like of a waterfall). And finally, if you decide to shoot multiple exposures (for HDR or for luminosity masking), you will need those photos to be shot from the exact same location.

Try using a circular polarizer filter. It can make blue skies richer, cut through reflections on water, and even allow the color of leaves to shine through when they’re wet. The water on a leaf will just reflect the sky, blocking its natural beauty.

Composition

Every rule was meant to be broken (in photography… not while driving. Obey those rules!). But here are some tips that will help you create compelling photos.

1. Make sure your horizon is level. Yes you can fix this in the computer, but it’s always better to get it right in-camera. The tripod can help here. It’s surprisingly easy to shoot a handheld photo slightly tilted (admit it… you’ve done it and been surprised that you did!)

2. The rule of thirds is a good place to start, meaning you position significant lines like the horizon at either the ⅓ or ⅔ point in the frame. (Scroll up for a good example of that.) But don’t be afraid to break that rule if you have a good reason to! For example a really amazing sky can easily dominate 90% of the frame, grounded by a thin line of horizon at the bottom. Or an extremely minimalistic scene where the ground and sky are smooth and unbroken could benefit from a perfectly centered horizon. You really don’t know until you try, so try!

3. When shooting landscapes, it’s tempting to get everything into focus. But consider treating it like a portrait, and having part of the image in focus, and part of it out of focus. Because of the distances, it is likely impossible to have one mountain in focus while another one is out, but don’t forget that you can have things closer to you out of focus as well. For example, if you frame the shot with a tree branch and that branch is largely out of focus, that can add real depth to your image.

4. Look for dynamic light — sun and shadows in the same image. The difference between lighter and darker parts of the scene will add dimension and depth to the photo. If it’s all lit exactly the same, it will be quite flat.

Rule of thirds… ha! The horizon is very near the bottom of the frame, leaving room for the incredible sky and rainbow. Take that, rules!

Editing your photos

DxO PhotoLab is an excellent tool for all the editing needs in landscape photography. Since you were shooting RAW (you did shoot RAW, right?) you have lots of latitude to push and and pull your shadows, introducing more depth and texture.

The DxO Smart Lighting feature can help with that. It will automatically fill in shadows that may be too dark, and darken highlights that may have been overexposed.

Of course if you want to go the other direction, and make your photo more contrasty, then my favorite tool to use is the Tone Curve. I have always loved the power of darkening shadows and brightening highlights in a single tool. Drawing a classic “S-curve” is a great place to start.

Ah, the Tone Curve. My favorite tool to quickly and accurately enhance shadows and highlights in any image!

You may also want to massage your colors, and perhaps enhance some of them over others using the Hue / Saturation / Lightness tool, and choose to adjust a color channel like Reds or Yellows in a sunset photo.

Another magical tool is DxO ClearView, which can cut through haze like a hot knife through butter. Check out this image below with a simple application of ClearView at its default setting!

And finally, don’t be afraid to Crop your photo! The composition you shot it in may not be the best option after all, and remember if you’re sharing on a computer screen, who cares what aspect ratio it is. (If you’re going to post a version to Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, it can certainly be to your advantage to crop for that platform though. Just google search “social media aspect ratios” to learn what the latest ratios are (they tend to change often, so I won’t include them here).

A Final Thought

The single most important thing about landscape photography however, is this. Enjoy yourself. Remember, shooting landscapes means you’re surrounding yourself with natural beauty. Take advantage of the peace and quiet, and enjoy your time in the field. Don’t be so focused on the photo that you forget to simply enjoy your surroundings! Even if you don’t come back with a total winner shot, at least you will have cherished the time you had shooting it.

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