Great landscape pictures all have two big things in common:
- A scenic location
- Good light
Sounds easy, but landscape photography is rife with challenges. You’ve got to find a scenic place to begin with. This can be hard when you’re traveling in a new place. You’ll have to find the good light. This takes planning and a bit of luck. You’ll need to bring the right gear, and you’ll need to figure out what to actually take your picture of once you get there.
It’s the best part of travel: you arrive somewhere new, step off the plane (or bus or boat, or whatever) and you think, “This is Ammmmazing! Ahhh!” The high lasts awhile, and in the meantime you’ll suck at taking pictures because (I’ve said it before) you can’t figure out what looks good on a 2 dimensional rectangular image vs. what is interesting to you in the real-life moment, because it’s all interesting and new.
Preparation mitigates this. Before you leave, check out pictures of the nearby monuments and landscapes online. Practically everywhere on Earth has been photographed by now. You’re going to add your personal take, and it helps to know where to start. Figure out where the scenic locations are. See if there are any hills or lookout points you might be able to climb. Get a feel for the local terrain. Know what to look for before you get there.
Bring the right gear
You can take good landscape photos with any camera setup. For reliably great photos, there are three things you really should have:
- Shutter release cable
- Neutral density filters
The tripod and shutter release cable help you minimize camera shake. You’ll be able to dial in all of your settings before you take your picture, and you won’t have to touch the camera to shoot. The shutter release cable is also necessary for most cameras when the shutter speed exceeds 30 seconds.
Neutral density (ND) filters are like sunglasses for your camera, reducing the light and forcing longer exposure times. Water and clouds look particularly smooth and and calm when long exposures are used. The blue tones of water captured with an ND filter naturally highlight reds and yellows from sunsets or artificial light.
ND filters are marketed by the number of stops by which they cut the light. Each stop cuts the light in half; the 10 stop neutral density filter used below cuts the light in half 10 times. Another way of saying this is a 10 stop ND filter allows only 1/1024th of the original light through. While 10 stops is good for early evening, as the light fades it becomes too dim. I carry a 4 stop ND filter for these times (which lets 1/16th of the light through.)
If you need help figuring out exposure times when using an ND filter, download my easy pdf guide here: ND filter guide
Find good light
The best light is found at sunrise and sunset. Check online for these times before you go. I prefer shooting at sunrise; there is something so peaceful, almost meditative, about shooting in a foreign place at such an early and quiet hour. Sunrise can be too early for urban landscapes though – city lights aren’t always on yet and there’s not enough commotion to make a truly interesting picture.
Think about whether you want to include the sun in the frame. Doing so creates a more powerful image, but you’ll invite lens flare that’s extremely difficult to edit out. Shooting without the sun in the frame allows for a more balanced and calming image.
You should check the weather forecast. Some clouds in your pictures can be a good thing – they’ll reflect dramatic light and add color to the sky. Overcast days are a challenge because of the bland, grey blue skies. If you want to shoot landscapes on an overcast day it’s important to find a way to make the light work for you. Pay particular attention to how you frame and present your shot, and consider using your ND filter.
In the picture above, I would say the light is good for that picture, even though it was a boring overcast day. The dark areas are deep and contrasty, the vignette emphasizes the mountain range, and the dark reflections in the water add interest and invite the viewer to look further.
Landscape photography tips
You’ll certainly want a great picture after going through all the trouble to find a scenic location in good light. There are a two main ideas to keep in mind here:
- Take a picture of something
- Fill the frame with interesting things that support whatever you are taking a picture of
When you’re standing there in the moment, you’ll have a 360 degree view of awesome. It can be really hard to find one single thing to take your picture of, but you’ll need to because “everything” rarely works in photography. Do you want a photo of the sunrise itself? Or do you want a photo of the mountain illuminated, glowing in the light of the rising sun? Pick one thing to photograph and work your way backwards to decide how you might fill your frame, presenting that one thing in the most interesting way possible.
Sometimes I’ll zoom in on details; sometimes I’ll capture the scene as a whole. I might focus on the repetition within a scene and leave the viewer questioning the scale, or I might prefer to include a person or car as a reference. Making these decisions are all part of the fun and challenge of landscape photography.
Remember that landscapes rarely need to be rushed. Move slowly and really think about how to make the best possible picture.
Urban landscapes can be easier than natural ones because there is more opportunity to find good light. Light plays off buildings in interesting ways as the day progresses, and at night city lights illuminate in variations of yellow, purple, and blue hues.
City lights present new challenges. Gone are the smooth tones and gradients of nature. Artificial light is harsh and overly bright, sometimes exceeding the limits of your camera’s ability to record the scene. One of the few times I’ll employ HDR is when I shoot urban landscapes at night. HDR combines multiple exposures of the same scene in an attempt to make up for digital’s lack of ability to record brights and darks.
If you want to go really old school, film (above) also does a good job of capturing these high contrast scenes without the need for HDR.
Another way of dealing with harsh city light is to embrace it with high contrast black and white. This gives a strong look:
You can never be sure of your photos until you take them. You might spend hours getting to a scenic location only to have the light suck or have your camera fail. Make sure to enjoy the process: bring a friend or a good book. Have a picnic, have a beer, and enjoy the view as you take your pictures. That way you’ll have a good experience regardless of how the pictures come out.
When it’s time to edit your shots, don’t force it. Nothing ruins a beautiful landscape photograph faster than a bad edit. Focus on taking a good picture, and the editing will be easy.
I hope these landscape photography tips help you next time you’re out shooting!