Planning ahead

Preparation and planning is essential to put yourself in the right place at the right time.

Landscape photography is an immensely time consuming endeavor. It can take weeks, months or even years before the picture is eventually made. It all starts at home. Once you have decided on a particular region it’s time to start your research. The first thing I reach for is a map; the more detailed the better. A good map gives you a bird’s eye view of the area and shows you not only the topography of the landscape but also how to move around in it. Even more important it will tell you where North, South, East and West are so you can get a rough idea where the sun will rise and set during the year. If you've got a smartpone there are several apps that can supply precise solar and lunar tracking data in combination with satellite-view maps.

The water flow of streams and rivers
is seasonal, peaking as snow melts
from the mountains.
Pre-trip research can give you a sense
of locales that may be more conducive
to a black and white interpretation.

Other helpful research documents are travel and natural history books and already existing photographs or paintings of the chosen place. A list of sunrise/sunset times throughout the year and, if it’s a coastal area, a tide table are absolutely essential. Fortunately, nearly all of this information can be found from the comfort of your home by spending some quality time with Google.

Location Scouting

None of this, however, is a replacement for exploring the area in person. My first order of business when arriving in an area for the first time is to go location scouting. I prefer to take these treks at midday when the light for actual photography is not the best. If I even bring a camera with me it's likely to be a point & shoot model. The goal here is not picture-making, but finding photographic opportunities to take advantage of when the light is more to my liking.

This means finding the perfect viewpoint and composition and then visualizing how the scene would look under different lighting, weather and seasonal conditions. If your research was good you will already know how the flora will change through the seasons; whether there will be colourful wildflowers in spring and summer or if Autumn brings warm yellow and brown tones. Is the area is prone to ice and snow during winter? Is there a chance of mist and fog in warmer months. Will the water level of a lake change during the seasons? Are coastal tides at their most dramatic? It may sound like being a landscape photographer is akin to a meteorologist, but it is this attention to detail that can mean the difference between a mediocre image and a stunning photograph.

Once you've decided on a subject, location scouting is useful for finding the most effective vantage point from which to photograph it.

Another reason I usually go scouting around midday is because the sun is at its highest and it’s easier to predict its path during the day.  Knowing where and when the sun will rise and set is probably the single most important information for a landscape photographer.

By combining first hand knowledge of an area's topography with researched information of its natural history and weather patterns you now have the tools to create the perfect image in your head. After that it’s the waiting game. Waiting for the desired conditions to arrive and then being there to make the image. This could take minutes or hours (if you’re lucky) or months and even years.

Technique

For many of us the following is an all too familiar situation: You were standing in one of the most beautiful places imaginable and conditions were perfect. No question the picture you made must be a winner. But what appeared on the computer screen later, while obviously documenting the physical location, just looked dull and boring with little resemblance to your emotional experience on location.

Simply taking a well-focused image is not enough. A landscape photographer’s primary task is to recreate a three-dimensional world without borders inside a two-dimensional rectangular frame. This is, strictly speaking impossible of course, but we can create the illusion of a three-dimensional world that conveys a sense of the subject as we experienced it on the ground. We have several compositional tools to accomplish this.

Composition

Leading lines can direct a viewer's attention and make an otherwise static image more dynamic. Creative placement of foreground and background objects can add a sense of depth.

The use of leading lines and the foreground/background relationship are important tools used to achieve the illusion of depth. Leading lines direct the viewer from one point in the image to another, often extending beyond the image frame. A river, winding road, grove of trees, and curving coastline, to name just a few examples, can all be used to guide the eye through the picture, creating the feeling of being able to walk right into the frame.

The foreground/background relationship includes the strategic placement of objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. Because our brains know the size of certain objects this also creates a sense of depth. Example: Big boulder in the foreground, small mountain range in the background. We know mountains are bigger than boulders hence our brain tells us there must be a great distance between boulder and mountains.

A boulder in the foreground with distant hills shot in low-angled light is a tried and true combination. When the sky is hazy and dull, try a composition based around a strong and dominant foreground.

In our quest to create a sense of depth, we must not forget that the overall appearance of a picture must also be pleasing to the eye. For those just starting to develop a compositional 'eye', the principle of the rule of thirds is a good place to start. It is a well known compositional aid that has been applied by painters long before photography's origins.

To employ the rule of thirds, imagine two evenly spaced horizontal and vertical lines dividing your image into a grid of nine equal sections (shown here). Compositional points of interest can be more dynamic when placed inside one of these grids or along the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines.

These basic composition rules are often applied instinctively but can and should be instinctively broken. If that boulder placed in a rule of thirds grid doesn’t 'feel right' to you it probably shouldn’t be there. Experienced photographers will let their gut instinct override a predetermined rule.

Composition is not only the arrangements of various elements within the image frame it is also the use of light and shadow, colours - or the lack of it - and emotion. The latter, although the most subjective, is probably the most crucial ingredient of a landscape picture. Emotion is what drives you to make the image in the first place and a good landscape image should evoke an emotional response in the viewer. We are not merely documenting a location but a feeling that the location inspires.

A cool, diffuse winter light gives a
much different feel...
...than warm directional light in the
spring and summer months.

Light plays an essential role in conveying emotion in a landscape picture. The natural light coming from the sun can have various qualities: direct, diffuse, warm, or cold. We can point the camera directly at a light source or capture the light coming into the frame at an angle. We can use the soft light of dusk and dawn or the harsh light of midday. Dramatic effects can result from shooting during the so-called 'golden hours' around sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky. But, just as with any dictum or convention, there are exceptions. Some subjects are better served by the harsher light of mid-day.

Colours are also an important compositional tool. Colours can be experienced as warm or cold, can be strong or muted. The use of complimentary colours (red & green, blue & orange, yellow & violet) is, like the rule of thirds, a traditional artistic tool. Yet single colour themes can also produce very strong images. What is clear though is that the combination of both colour and light determine in large part the overall mood of the picture, which directly effects its emotional impact.

Exposure

For landscape photography I typically have my camera in aperture priority mode and set to its native ISO sensitivity (which typically offers the highest image quality). This means I set the aperture and the camera determines the appropriate shutter speed for what its metering system determines to be a correct exposure.

As effective as your camera's metering system is in creating a 'normal' exposure, there are many instances in which you benefit by manually adjusting exposure in order to create a particular mood.

Correctly exposing a picture has undoubtedly become much easier over the past decades. Today's complex metering systems can determine a pleasing exposure in a wide variety of lighting situations. However, they are not foolproof so it helps to understand the basic principle of how they work. Your camera's metering system is calibrated to a brightness value of a midtone grey, which it will try and reproduce in the scene at which it is pointed.

In many situations this will work out fine but when you have a scene dominated by a bright subject  - like snow - you will need to manually compensate by overexposing so that white tones are rendered white instead of grey. The same holds true when photographing a scene with predominantly dark objects. You will need to underexpose to prevent deep rich shadows from appearing dull and grey. I generally do this by using positive or negative exposure compensation values until the tones are close to where I envision them in the final image. The trick, of course is to avoid going too far and losing import detail in either highlights or shadows. You can of course, quickly verify your exposure by viewing the histogram in either live view mode or during image review.

Scenes with a wide dynamic range require you to decide whether to expose primarily for either the brighter or darker objects in the scene. Establishing pleasing shadow values while maintaining detail is a hallmark of strong black and white photography.

Another important setting to consider is white balance (WB), which basically determines the colour temperature (measured in degrees kelvin) of the image. Cameras offer broad presets intended for sunny and cloudy conditions, with many also allowing you to specify actual values in degrees Kelvin.

When shooting in raw mode, however, I prefer to defer this decision to the image editing stage. Setting my camera to its Auto WB mode usually gives a reasonable starting point from which to make creative adjustments later on when processing the raw file on a my colour calibrated monitor. Unlike with JPEGs, you risk no image degradation by doing this post exposure. For situations where critically accurate (versus pleasing) WB is crucial, I make a reference image by including a grey card or a more sophisticated gizmo like the X-Rite ColorChecker in the scene.

With these preparations complete, I shoot a separate test image to verify composition and exposure. And I take my time to check the test shot in detail on my camera's rear LCD. Are there any branches or other distracting elements poking out of the corners (this can be surprisingly easy to miss in the viewfinder)? Are there any blown out highlights (if your camera has a highlight alert turn it on) or clipped shadow areas? After this evaluation I alter the composition, add or remove filters or adjust the exposure as needed. 

By this point, hopefully the light hasn’t faded, the clouds in the sky are all in place and no tourists are running through the scene. All that's left to do now is to press the shutter to capture the image I've envisioned.


Carsten Krieger is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in the West of Ireland and author of several books on the Irish landscape and nature. To find out more about his work please visit his website: www.carstenkrieger.com. Product images courtesy K.B. Canham Cameras Inc., Canon USA, Inc., Nikon Inc., and Leaf Imaging Ltd.