Unhappy With Your Landscape Photos? Here's Why!

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MarshallG
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Unhappy With Your Landscape Photos? Here's Why!
3 months ago

A few people have posted photos of their landscapes, asking why they look so poor. I've put together two sets of "before and after" photos to show you exactly how to make your landscape photos look dramatically better -- and you don't need a new camera or lens. All you need is an alarm clock. And if you follow this simple advice, I promise you'll take a photo that you'll be very proud of; one which will be a huge improvement over what you're currently doing.

Here's a photo of the brand new San Francisco Bay Bridge. It's well-exposed, crisp, sharp... and utterly boring. Post-processing is not going to fix what's wrong with this photo. A better lens, or a polarizer won't really help. But an alarm clock will fix it.

San Francisco Bay Bridge, mid-day

The problem with this photo is the sun. It's high up in the sky, blowing light all over. This creates intense contrast and glare, and inevitably, some areas are over or under-exposed. And the imperial walkers in the background are distracting. The photo above, I think, looks like a snapshot.

So I bought an alarm clock, woke up at 5AM and trudged over to the same spot. Let's have a look:

San Francisco Bay Bridge at Dawn

By shooting a long exposure before sunrise, we can bring out much more detail in what we shoot, because there are shadows everywhere. Shadows create depth and detail in our photos. Since the sky is much darker, many more details emerge. We can throw distracting details into complete darkness.

These two photos are not re-touched one bit; the only difference is time of day. (The lens focal lengths are a little different; sorry about that). Look at the water: When you use very long exposures, you can create the velvety texture you see in the Dawn photo. You need to try a variety of speeds to create the best texture; it varies by wind speed. Sometimes, even though it's dark, photographers use neutral density filters to make the shutter speed even longer.

Here is another Before/After pair. This pair is different: They were taken at sunset, only about ten minutes apart. At dawn and dusk, you must work very fast. So I began by shooting as many photos as I could to figure out exposure and composition. The "Before" photo here was taken with automatic exposure settings. It has everything it should have: A California sunset over the water, with the spectacular Mount Tamalpais in the background. And my fantastic camera produced this piece of junk:

Before. You wouldn't show your friends this California vacation photo, would you?

I took a bunch of photos from this point. I decided that the long wooden board wasn't that interesting after all. In fact, I decided to make the sky my subject, so I exposed for the sky, by using exposure compensation to reduce the exposure. That had the added bonus of making all of those weeds and the traffic cone and the kids become completely black, and invisible. I could post an "in-between" shot, because they started looking better. But what I did next was that I enabled the wireless flash feature of my Canon 7D, so that it triggered my Speedlight 430EX II flash. Next, I asked my lovely assistant to hold the Speedlight so that it pointed towards that palm tree you see. Even though all the foreground objects were darkened by my underexposure, I exposed the palm tree. (This is easier than it sounds.)

After: A California vacation photo worth showing your friends.

Here's one last simple example of using a flash outdoors. Last summer, we had a really amazing sunset. As I've said, to capture a sunset, expose for the sky. This usually means that you need to use Exposure Compensation to reduce exposure, which will darken everything else in your photo. In the photo below, I had to work very, very quickly. This sky lasted only a few minutes, so I couldn't get my flash and configure off-camera flash. Instead, I just used the pop-up flash and illuminated the foreground.

Another example of using a flash at sunset.

So the lesson of this post is very simple: To improve your landscape photos, you need to scout the location and return at dawn or dusk, set up your gear, and shoot fast. Be prepared to underexpose, and be prepared to return several times, because sunrises and sunsets are always different.

Happy shooting! Let me know how it goes.

 MarshallG's gear list:MarshallG's gear list
Canon EOS 7D Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +4 more
Canon EOS 7D
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