Learning landscape photography comes down to lighting and composition. Lighting in outdoor photography can be difficult because you can’t control the source and it’s unpredictable. I’m sharing some tips I’ve learned over the years on composing incredible landscape photos and overcoming lighting issues that don’t involve waking up in the early morning for golden hour.
1. You Can Use Any Camera Lens
I wont recommend the best landscape photography lens because I don’t believe any lenses are better than the others. Every lens servers a purpose and depending on the scene you could create beautiful landscape pictures with every lens in your camera bag. I always recommend only three lenses, wide angle, telephoto, and macro, and here’s why each of them are perfect for landscape photos. The three photos below show how different lenses capture the same scene.
Wide Angle Lens
The most common lens used in landscape photography is a wide-angle lens which is a focal length of 35mm or less. A wide-angle lens fits more into the frame than a standard or telephoto lens and allows you to capture the whole scene and create depth of field.
Using a macro lens can add a unique perspective by allowing you to include elements from the environment in the foreground. The longer focal length could also enlarge the subject and remove excess on the edges without getting as tight as a telephoto lens.
We can’t always get closer to our subject so a telephoto lens allows you to isolate the subject from the scene and remove clutter without getting physically closer. The telephoto lens is also more versatile because you can photograph landscape and wildlife with a telephoto lens, but its a lot harder to take pictures of wildlife with a wide-angle lens.
2. Use bracket exposure
Many outdoor photographers will tell you the golden hour is the only way to get great landscape photos. Golden hour is the hour after sunrise and before sunset and has the ideal lighting for outdoor shots. But planning your vacation for around 2 hours a day is difficult and restrictive. One way to minimize harsh mid-day shadows is bracket exposure: a setting where the camera will take three different photos in quick succession at three different exposures. Then Lightroom can blend the photos using the best elements from each which helps reduce an overexposed sky and harsh shadows.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it can help improve your landscape photos when planning activities around golden hour are difficult or not possible. You may also find the images the camera thought were over or underexposed are actually better than the “properly” exposed image.
The first three photos in the below series are the three original photos. The first is what the camera thought was the correct exposure and would be the only image I had if I hadn’t used bracket exposure. There are a lot of shadows on the face of the rock and in the background. The second photo exposes the background and reduces the shadows on the face, but most of the face is overexposed, while the third photo is underexposed and dark.
The final photo is the HDR blend of all three images which used the best exposure of each to create a photo better than any were on their own.
3. Place the Horizon Line on the bottom or top third
Utilize the rule of thirds when framing a landscape photo and avoid placing the horizon in the middle of the frame. Whether you place the horizon on the upper or lower third will be influenced by how interesting or uninteresting the sky and foreground are.
In the photo of Yosemite Valley, the valley is more appealing than the sky, so I placed the horizon in the upper third. The sunset at White Sands was more appealing than including more sand dunes. If you’re unsure of which would look best, just take one of both. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try.
4. Stabilize the Camera
Notice I didn’t say use a tripod, though that is one solution. Landscape photographers may hike a long distance to get the perfect shot and the less you have the carry the better. To reduce camera shake you can rest the camera on the ground and use rocks, sticks, or your hiking gear to get the right angle. Another option is a trekking pole monopod and use a tree to prop the camera up. Don’t worry about getting a perfectly straight horizon line, you can always straighten the image in post processing.
5. Use Polarizing and Neutral Density Filters
Lens filters are tools photographers use to help them achieve a certain look. They are affordable, help protect your lens, enhance colors, reduce reflections, and reduce light.
Circular polarizing filters can help create bluer skies, fewer reflections, increase contrast, and reduce haze.
Neutral Density Filters are like sunglasses for your eyes, reducing the amount of light that reaches the sensor and enables you to use a slow shutter speed even on a sunny day. Neutral density filters are useful for creating a flowy water look.
6. Don’t be afraid of weather
The other day, in spite of threats of rain, I went for a hike at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. A passerby saw me taking pictures and said “too bad you don’t have better weather”. What most people don’t realize is overcast days are actually ideal because it’s soft light all day long! Be careful with your equipment and have a rain cover, but weather elements can add a lot of visual appeal and should be embraced not feared.
7. Use a mid range aperture – 8-11
A good landscape photo focuses on the whole scene rather than trying to create image blur. Aperture controls the amount of background or foreground blur – lower f-stops create more blur and higher f-stops create less blur. A good aperture setting for landscape photography is somewhere between f/8 and f/11.
8. Get perspective
It’s difficult for a viewer to imagine how grandiose a scene is unless you include elements the viewer would be familiar with, such as people, animals, and buildings. When a viewer sees something they consider large, like a building, taking up a minuscule amount of space, they can begin to visualize the scale of the scene.
These are just a few of the tips I use most regularly. Share your tips in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!