What do you actually need to know to do landscape photography?
Landscape photography is a process. Many might even say a process of self-discovery. In my latest video, I try to cover 90% of landscape photography (see it as the “big majority”) that you need to know to actually do landscape photography. It is the framework that landscape photographers work within. I put it into the 90/10-method, where you can accomplish 90% of the project with only 10% of the effort, while you need to do 90% of the effort to reach those last 10% and become a really great and acknowledged landscape photographer.
In the below section, I will try to cover the video, but be sure to watch it to catch the nuances, further explanation, and watch a lot of my new photos.
The video is mainly for beginners, but advanced or experienced photographers can hopefully pull out a few pointers or reminders. First, you need a camera, and despite the overwhelming amount of information about gear out there, it is of minor concern what brand and type of camera you choose to begin with; nobody can see the difference in the final photo anyway. In the end, a camera is just a tool to catch the light, and you need the experience to learn what practical features you value in a camera.
Many beginners struggle with settings in landscape photography, but for the most part, it is actually fairly easy. Keep the ISO as low as possible, use an aperture that allows the entire photo to be in focus, and the shutter speed to whatever gets an optimal exposure without overexposing the highlights or underexposing the shadows. There are, of course, many situations where you need to prioritize the shutter speed, such as windy days, and if you photograph a river or waterfall, but it is about getting the optimal balance between the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. If you need to see me further explain this, be sure to see the video.
If you need to manipulate your settings further, you can use filters. The main filter to use is the neutral density filter (ND). ND filters come in many forms and sizes, and they basically work as sunglasses for your camera, which makes it possible to increase the length of your shutter speed and make those long exposures of water. The other main filter is the polarizing filter, which cuts out polarized light from your scene with the effect of making the blue sky bluer, greens greener, and removing reflections, and some atmospheric haze.
Lenses are the determining factor for the optical quality of your photos. A good lens on an older camera will likely make better photos than a bad lens on a newer camera (in regard to optical quality). In landscape photography, the rule of thumb is to cover the focal range from 16mm to 200mm (in full frame terms), while keeping the optical quality of your photos acceptable (whatever that is for you). This can usually be done with the “holy trinity” of lenses: a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm. With fewer lenses, you compromise the optical quality, and with more lenses, you compromise weight, cost, and practicality. If you want further information on lenses, camera systems, and an explanation of focal length, and more be sure to check out the video.
The landscape photographer’s most important accessory is probably the tripod. With a low ISO and closed down aperture, you can often end up with relatively long/slow shutter speeds, which means the photo can easily become blurry due to camera shake. With a tripod, you eliminate this problem, and that is the main function of the tripod, to keep the camera still while taking the photo. When choosing the tripod, it is about finding the right balance between sturdiness and practicality. In my experience, I can get about 98% of my photos with a good quality carbon fiber travel tripod like the Benro Travel Angel line.
What to Photograph?
So, what to photograph? That is a good question and completely comes down to you. Some landscape photographers like to photograph epic vistas, some like to tell conceptual stories, some like to document environmentalism, some like to photograph abstracts in nature for the pure sense of aesthetics and feeling. Some photographers value technical perfection, some value the story of the photo, some value exploration, originality, and a sense of sacrifice to get the photo, some value realism and that special moment, while others are more impressionistic about their photos. Some photographers use it as meditation, just as some people like to go fishing, while others again try to make a living from it. There are no right or wrong approaches to landscape photography, and for the most part, most photographers do not even know what they value when they start out. The truth is we all probably value all of it to varying degrees, and what you find out you value is down to your background and influences — and those may very well change over time. There is no secret to landscape photography. Just do what you like to do, and tell the stories and make the photos you respond to.
When you are out photographing, the best way to improve your photos is to put some intention behind how you structure them. How do you place the elements in your scene within the frame, how do you compose it? The composition is about creating and finding order in your photos. A few important pointers are to have a focal point, a subject, something you take a photo of, which is not just a pretty view or sunset. You also need to balance the photo to make sure it does not feel as if one side is heavier than the other is. Make sure the elements in your frame play together, like using leading lines or elements that actually lead the viewer’s eye into the photo instead of out. The composition is hard, but I would argue you can learn a lot with practice and feedback.
Finally yet importantly, as you do digital photography, you also need to learn some photography editing. To get the most out of your digital image file you need to photograph in raw format and not JPEG. With raw, you have much, much more information available to you. There are many programs to edit your photos, and most of them cover the same basics. No matter if you like or hate this part of landscape photography, it is absolutely essential you learn how to edit your photos. Whether you allow yourself to go all out in the editing phase, use editing to solve some problems, which are not possible within the camera itself, or want to make a realistic photo, which looks like how you saw the scene in front of you, editing is necessary (below example). There are many creative choices to make in digital photography, just as there are in analog photography, where your choice of film and your darkroom process greatly influence your final photo.
In my experience, this covers the majority of what you need to know to do landscape photography. There are, of course, many small nuances, which you learn down the road during the final 90% of effort. Be sure to check out the video above for more details and photos and let me hear below what you also consider important to know.