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Landscape Photography Primer

CarstenKriegerPhotography | Photo Techniques | Published Jan 20, 2012

A successful landscape photograph conveys an emotional sense of place to the viewer.

Landscape photography is among the more enticing genres among enthusiasts. Many draw inspiration from twentieth century giants like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, American photogaphers who saw the continent's vast spaces as opportunities for artistic expression. Yet the roots of their work go back even further to those who took on the decidedly unglamorous and backbreaking survey work of the American West. This was performed by unsung heroes like William Henry Jackson and Timothy H. O’Sulllivan, who were skilled in wilderness survival and able to endure the hardship required to map and photograph the new frontier.

Being a landscape photographer today no longer means trekking through unmapped terrain with pack mules hauling 50 pounds of camera gear and darkroom equipment. Yet there remain both technical and logistical hurdles in photographing the great outdoors. In this article, we'll explore equipment options for the landscape specialist, discuss the logistics involved in planning a shooting trip and look at techniques that allow you to capture the essence of the scene unfolding in front of your camera.

Equipment

Superb image quality and the ability to record as much detail as possible are hallmarks of landscape photography. For this reason the view camera has long been, and still is, the tool of choice for many serious landscape photographers.

The 4 x 5 field camera has long been a favorite for landscape work, combining a large film area with the ability to fold the camera flat for storage. One of the greatest advantages of view cameras is that they allow for independent movements between the lens and film/sensor plane.

Back in the days of film, resolution was mainly determined by film size. The bigger the film, the greater the resolution and hence the more detail could be recorded. The most common film sizes for view cameras are 4 x 5 inches and 8 x 10 inches (though much larger formats exist). These represent significantly more film area than the more common 24 x 36 mm full frame format. And they are not obsolete in the digital age, as digital backs can be adapted to fit on them in place of a film holder.

View cameras also allow for significant tilt, shift, rise and fall movements of the front standard (where the lens sits) that are independent of the rear standard (where the film or sensor sits). This allows for a control of perspective and depth of field that is simply not possible with standard lenses on 35mm systems.

Obvious downsides of view cameras are their hefty size and bulk. It also takes significantly longer to frame, focus and expose an image and you'll most certainly be setting up and using a tripod as well. Given all this, the likelihood of missing spur of the moment photo opportunities like a short-lived rainbow or the quickly fading evening light are quite high.

Digital camera systems

Film was still king when I started to take photography seriously, and the format choices were pretty straightforward: 35mm format for wildlife and other ‘fast’ photography, medium format (6 x 4.5 cm, 6 x 6 cm, 6 x 7 cm) for macro/close up photography, and large format view cameras for landscape and architectural work.

The rise of enthusiast and professional digital cameras, however, made these decisions much less straightforward. Today, full frame DSLRs can have equal or even better resolution than medium format film. 

The high resolution APS-C sensors in enthusiast level DSLRs can produce satisfyingly detailed landscape imagery. Today's pro level full frame DSLRs are built to withstand harsh environments and provide image quality that was once only possible with medium format film.
Medium format DSLRs, while still beyond the means of most of amateurs, have come down significantly in price. Digital backs can be fitted to both film and digital camera systems and represent the state of the art in high resolution digital capture.

Even APS-C format DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras offer resolution sufficient to produce well-detailed landscape images. The medium format DSLR market is also seeing a bit of a renaissance, with bodies now available in the $10k price range and resolutions exceeding 40MP. And at the very high end there are digital single shot and scanning backs that are compatible with view cameras and offer resolution as high as 80MP.

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Lenses

The optics that sit in front of your camera are of vital importance in landscape photography. And while you don't want to skimp on image quality or sharpness, it's important to remember that you'll be shooting with a tripod and often stopping down the aperture for increased depth of field. Your priority then is not necessarily on 'fast' lenses with wide maximum apertures.

For landscape photographers shooting with full-frame DSLRs, the 70-200mm zoom lens is often a popular choice. And one that is available from many manufacturers.

One of the biggest decisions for DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera shooters is whether to outfit a kit with prime (fixed focal length) lenses, zooms, or a combination of both. Prime lenses used to offer significantly superior output than zoom lenses, with greater sharpness and fewer lens flaws such as chromatic aberration. The image quality of zoom lenses, however, has increased substantially in recent decades, with the high-end offerings providing very good image quality and of course the ability to access several focal lengths with a single piece of gear.

In practice this means that composing an image can be done more quickly and with greater precision. And when carrying only two lenses - say a 24-70mm and 70-200mm - you are covered for almost any situation you'll encounter in the field. In my experience, the best prime lenses still have a discernible edge over zooms in terms of sharpness and rendition of detail. But the difference generally comes into play only when producing large prints.

So what is the best camera system for landscape photography? There is no single correct answer. It all depends on several factors that you must take into account before heading to your camera shop.

Here's the camera and lens kit I've settled on for landscape shooting:

This system allows me the flexibility to do a good amount of wildlife and macro work as well. With a resolution of 22MP I am very well covered to make large prints, the tilt/shift lenses give me some perspective control (though not as much as a view camera would) and the overall package is just light enough for me to carry over long distances. This system represents a significant investment, but as a working photographer, it gives me the ability to produce both editorial and fine art work of professional quality. Your needs, and of course budget, may differ.

Filters

While I make use of digital image editing tools, I still find some filters to be indispensable. With a polarizer I can increase contrast and saturation in-camera as well as reduce reflections on bodies of water. Solid ND (neutral density) filters, which reduce incoming light to the lens, allow me to increase exposure time, and graduated ND filters let me selectively darken an area of the scene so that both bright and dark elements can be exposed with visible detail in a single exposure.

Graduated ND filters are dark on one end and clear on the other with either a soft or hard graduation in the middle. Placed in front of the lens these filters can darken a portion of the scene (usually by anywhere from 1 to 3 stops EV) for a balanced exposure.

When choosing filters I recommend a filter system by Cokin (shown here) or Lee. In contrast to screw-on filters, a single drop-in filter can be used on different sized lenses via an adapter ring. Even more importantly, the ND grad filters can be moved up and down in the filter holder, for precise alignment of the exposure adjustment.

You should also be aware of UV, Skylight and clear protection filters. The effect of the first two is to filter out the blue colour cast that you find at high altitudes or by the sea. But these filters, along with the dedicated clear filters, have also become very popular as protection for the front element of the lens. It is easier and cheaper to replace a broken filter than a broken lens.

Tripods

Creating professional quality landscape images is just not possible without a tripod. Landscape photographers are often shooting during the 'magic hours' of dawn and dusk when light levels require exposure times that are measured in full seconds or even minutes. A landscape photographer’s tripod needs to withstand high winds, rain, hail and snow, saltwater and extreme heat and cold. In the long run it pays to invest upfront in a good quality model. 

A tripod needs to be, above all else,
sturdy and reliable. Adding light
weight as a requirement further
increases the price, but will make
even moderate treks easier.
A ball head (shown above) allows for quick
adjustments along multiple axes simultaneously.
A quick-release system makes mounting and
unmounting the camera a very fast process.

Professional-grade tripods are typically constructed primarily of wood, aluminium or carbon fibre. Aluminium tripods are probably the most common and the least expensive. Wooden tripods are rather heavy to carry but absorb vibration like no other material. Carbon fibre tripods, although quite expensive, are on many a photographers' wish list because they weigh significantly less than either wood or aluminium yet are very sturdy.

In addition to all of the gear I've already mentioned, there some more bits and pieces that always have a place in my bag: a waist level finder, bubble level, X-Rite ColorChecker target, spare battery, raincover and/or towel, cleaning cloth and brush, flashlight and a pocket knife.

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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.