Tips and advice for better landscape photos 20


Great landscape pictures all have two big things in common:

  1. A scenic location
  2. 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.

Connemara, Ireland

Nice light over a scenic spot in Connemara, Ireland. Canon 5DIII, 65mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 100

Prepare yourself

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.

Rainbow over Nepal

Rainbow over Nepal. Canon 60D, 200mm, f/9, 1/500sec, ISO 100

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:

  • Tripod
  • 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.

No tripod?

No tripod? Come on, you’re better than that…

Tripod!

Tripod! Yes!

Vladivostok Pano

Tripod = worth it. An urban landscape in Vladivostok, Russia. 18 image HDR panorama. Canon 5DIII, approx 8mm equivalent focal length

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

Koh Samui

Water on Silver Beach, Thailand. Canon 5DIII, 17mm, f/11, 3min 20sec, ISO 100 with 10 stop ND filter

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.

Poon Hill Sunrise

Nepal Sunrise. I knew the lens would flare, but I liked the powerful look. Canon 5DIII, 14mm, 1/25sec, ISO 100

Baikal Sunset

Ice on Lake Baikal at Sunset. The sun adds drama to the shot without lens flare. Canon 5DIII, 17mm, f/4, 1/400sec, ISO 100

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.

Isafjordur

Overcast light doesn’t always ruin the shot. Isafjordur, Iceland. Canon 5DIII, 17mm, f/9, 3min 33sec, ISO 400 with 10 stop 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:

  1. Take a picture of something
  2. Fill the frame with interesting things that support whatever you are taking a picture of
Mountain

A camera-full of mountain. Shot in Nepal. Canon 5DIII, 137mm, f/11, 1/40sec, ISO 100

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.

Iceland repetition

Patterns in Iceland with no reference for scale. Canon 5DIII, 157mm, f/5, 1/160sec, ISO 640

Mongolia

A sense of scale in Mongolia. Canon 60D, 180mm, f/6.3, 1/400sec, ISO 100

Urban landscapes

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.

Urban Landscape

Urban Landscape on film. Chicago, IL. Mamiya 645 1000s, 80mm and Kodak Ektar 100 medium format film

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.

Prague

Prague shot in HDR to preserve highlight details. Canon 5DIII, 105mm, f/9.

Another way of dealing with harsh city light is to embrace it with high contrast black and white. This gives a strong look:

High contrast Hong Kong

High contrast Hong Kong. Canon 5DIII, 17mm, f/13, 3.2sec, ISO 1600

Closing thoughts

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!


20 thoughts on “Tips and advice for better landscape photos

  • Renuka

    Nice tips! I often wonder why sometimes my landscape pictures are not as powerful as they should be, then I think each shot has to be more well thought-out, more diligently planned and executed.

    • Ed Graham

      Yeah, planning helps a lot. Or just thinking it through in advance. When you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find.

  • Nicole

    Great advice! I already stuggled when taking landscape pictures, too. I will definitely follow your tips:) Btw. the pictures in this post are just stunning! Very impressive landscapes and photographer skills

  • Nick Paton

    Dude! Your photo’s are insane, it’s got me inspired to really start getting out there and making more of an effort. Also, I now realise I do in fact need a tripod. Any recommendations?

    • Ed Graham

      I use an Induro tripod. It’s great and far cheaper than the more well known brands like Manfrotto. Not sure what the exact model is but I’ve been quite happy to trust thousands of dollars worth of camera to it through the years.

  • Mandie @ RamblingMandie

    This is one of those articles that I will bookmark for someday when I make it through all the incredibly basic photography tutorials…like how to use my camera. I struggle with my photography a lot because it’s not something I have a natural interest in. But then I see shots like this and it really does inspire me to put more of an effort in. 🙂

  • Victoria - WildWanderlings

    This is such an incredibly informative article. Thank you so much! I’m wondering: for the backpackers out there, do you have any recommendations with regards to compact, lightweight tripods that could be easily brought along in a 30litre backpack?

    • Ed Graham

      Hey Victoria I wish I had something for you, but you’re talking to a guy who lugged a full sized Induro tripod through the Himalayas for the sake of good pictures. Although I do think there is no such thing as a “bad” tripod so long as it is capable of supporting whatever weight you’re putting on top of it.

  • Robert Bruce

    Here are three things I have learned when it comes to taking interesting photos:

    1. Have a tripod or something that can stabilize your camera, especially if you are shooting in dark situations. This can be a monopod, a car hood or roof, the cool looking camera phone robot tripods that twist and lock into place, etc.

    2. Try to have something in the foreground as well as the background, give your photo depth like the “High Contrast Hong Kong” photo, above.

    3. The Rule of Thirds is the most basic composition rules. Imagine your photo is broken up into 4 intersecting lines, similar to tic tac toe. You want the focus of your image to show up on one of the intersecting lines. This means if you’re taking a photo of the Eiffel Tower, instead of framing it in the dead center of the photo, pan right a little and get something else in the shot to look at for perspective.

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