landscape photography for beginners

A Beginner’s Guide to Landscape Photography

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History of Landscape Photography

In the context of art history ‘landscapes’ are a relative newcomer, only beginning to truly capture the public imagination with the onset of Romanticism some 200 years ago. Poets such as William Blake and Painters including Constable and Turner began representing the sublime beauty of and power of nature. In both words and paintings they also documented the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ and man’s industrial encroachment upon those landscapes. Before this time historical scenes and portraiture had been the preoccupation of most art with landscapes often seen as a poor relation.

Yet it was a landscape that filled the frame of the first ever ‘photograph’ taken by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826. Using Camera Obscura and a home-made photo-sensitive varnish he began to paint with light: the sky, branches, barns and chimneys from an upper floor window of his family home.

Landscapes are innate. There is a strong irresistible impulse to paint them, describe them, photograph or document them as part of our human journey. Landscapes are those scenes; those moments which come to overwhelm us. They encapsulate something so beautiful, vast or even terrifying about our world as to be almost indescribable.

We have all stood, witness to nature, our senses pounded by its power, sedated by its beauty or awestruck by man’s’ architectural prowess and control of the elements. Landscape photography is an attempt to capture such moments in order to allow others a fleeting glimpse of a world we briefly inhabited if only for the time it takes for a shutter to click.

So enough about Landscape Photography history. What do you need to know as a beginning photographer to take great landcape pictures? Well, here’s a basic Landscape Photography primer.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Landscapes are not generally shot ‘on-the-fly’. Very often they are places or vantage points that compel us to return. Before photographing the scene you’d like to capture, it can be useful to think of the landscape as ‘naked’, usually during the middle of a clear day where every aspect of the scene is entirely apparent and visible to the eye. You may want to shoot a few simple JPEG images to help you decide how you might like to ‘frame’ or present the shot.

I use the term ‘naked’ because throughout the day every landscape, seascape or vista will dress itself with light, offer itself in various guises. The whole scene will change, sometimes subtly and sometimes more dramatically with each passing minute. Colours, textures and the diffuse nature of the light will alter with every arc of the sun, drop of rain or cloud passing by.

A good landscape photographer will want to see the effects of the weather and ambient light on the scene. Often the scene will be at its most arresting during inclement conditions but once you have been inspired to capture the essence of the landscape then none of these factors will dissuade you from capturing that perfect moment.

Lighting conditions are usually at their best early in the morning and late in the day

EQUIPMENT

When it comes to equipment, no one packs more than a landscape photographer. Landscape photographers rely heavily on using the RIGHT equipment. While camera equipment won’t guarantee you get the perfect shot, it sure can help — especially when taking landscape pictures.

DLSR Camera

The DSLR camera is pretty essential to the landscape photographer. Of course it is entirely possible to photograph a landscape using any available camera and some great shots have been taken on the most basic equipment. However using a decent DSLR will give you an overall greater degree of flexibility you’ll need. Cheaper digital cameras will take great scenic shots but DSLR’s mean that you can control exposure, depth-of-field and ISO more effectively.

There are a number of different DSLR camera choices out there, but among camera enthusiasts, the choice is between two companies:

  • Canon
  • Nikon

Now personally, I’m a Canon man myself, but Nikon has a lot to offer you as well — it comes down to a personal choice. In a later article I’ll break down exactly what specific camera models to look at, if you want the best camera for landscape photography. But for now, ANY DSLR by canon and Nikon should work.

One advantage of using a DSLR is the possibility of adding an AF Confirm adapter to the camera enabling you to purchase a large number of old Pentax M42 fit lenses. These can be picked up at garage sales or online and represent great value if you are on a strict budget or simply fancy experimenting.

Lenses

Lenses are arguably more important than Camera bodies. Many a professional will tell you it’s better to invest in good glass over expensive cameras if you have to choose between the two (and you may have to choose — as both DSLR’s and quality dslr lenses are expensive).

Lenses Fall into three broad categories:

  • Wide Angle — a lens with a short focal length that takes in a wide view (typically 10mm-24mm)
  • Normal — show what or close to what the human eye sees (30-60mm)
  • Telephoto — Magnify the object (typically 70mm+)

Other Specialty Lenses:

  • Prime — a lens with no zoom feature; typically sharper than zoom lenses
  • Fisheye — offer a distorted wide view
  • Zoom — a lens that can change its focal length
  • Macro Lens — lenses that have a close up mode for close up photography

Now the lens that MOST landscape photographers will utilize would be Wide Angle because you can capture the entire landscape scene more easily. Wide Angle Lenses give you an expensive picture.

You can further divide Wide Angle into two sub categories:

  • Wide Angle
  • Super Wide Angle (less than 15mm)

There are two types of lenses you’ll find in wide angle: fish-eye and rectilinear lenses.

Fish-Eye lenses create a curved effect to the composition whereas Rectilinear lenses render the final composition in straight rather than curved lines. Super-Wide Angle lenses are usually vastly expensive and whilst creating a dramatic optical effect, it is the choice of landscape and execution of the image that matter beyond all else.

Filters

Another advantage of a DSLR is the number and variety of filters available. These are relatively inexpensive but provide much more variation to your picture. In fact, if you want to take landscape shots, filters are VERY important as they can make or break some of your shots. A landscape photographer without a full filter kit is a landscape photographer without a hand!

The broad categories of filters are:

  • Graduated Filters — allow you to “hold back light” on parts of your image. Useful for high conrast lighting control
  • Neutral Density Filters — use these to get that silky effect on water because you can increase exposure time
  • Polarizer Filters — gives the sky a saturated blue look, reduces glare and reflections, and saturates your image
  • Color Filters — can warm or cool an image
  • UV Filters — stops UV from entering the picture. Most photographers use these to protect the camera lens, however
  • Speciality Filters

As a landscape photographer, your bread and butter filters will be Graduated Filters, Polarizer Filters, UV Filters, and to some extend, UV Filters. Depending on what you want to do, you may find a lot of use for some of the specility filters too.

If you’ve ever wondered WHY you can’t seem to get a balanced landscape picture with a baby blue sky and well exposed forground or that perfect sunset where the sky is vivid and colorful AND the forground is not too dark? The secret is to use a GRAD Filter (Graduated Filter). These filters help you “hold back” the light in key areas of a photo. This lets you take a more balanced image, even when there is high contrasting light, such as during sunsets.

A polarising filter is also another very useful filter. It will for example make blue skies much richer and will balance colour compositions. Even with an inexpensive 18-55mm lens that comes as part of the default camera kit lense when you buy a starter Nikon or Canon DSLR package, it’s always a good idea to use a UV filter to protect the lens and CCD from sunlight damage. This is particularly relevant for landscapes where long exposure times may be required.

Tripods

The next essential is the tripod. If you want to take great landscape shots, you are going to HAVE to have a tripod. Keeping the camera still is paramount in landscape photography. You may notice that when you shoot a landscape hand-held, the horizon very seldom comes out straight. This is because the simple action of depressing the shutter is enough to dramatically tilt the camera.

A a general rule of thumb I always use a tripod for any shot with an exposure time of greater than 1/250th of a second and very often this is one of the demands of landscape photography. Many photographers won’t take a landscape shot without a tripod, in fact.

Cost is less of an issue here. Tripods can range from cheapy 10 dollar models available in your local Wall-Mart to 800 dollar carbon fibre Gitzo tripods. There is a whole school of thought about what sort of tripod you should buy and trust me, there are books written on the topic. I’ll have a huge tripod guide written for you at some point in the future.

For now, as a beginner, my recommendation is that as long as the tripod will remain rigid and steady whilst the head allows decent movement and locking then a $30 tripod can be as good as a $300 tripod, provided you actually use it.

In windy weather you can use a weight or even a couple of old bricks or large stones lying around. For rain there are plenty of covers available for both you and the equipment but I have used a cheap $25 pop-up tent for this with no problems.

Other “Landscape” Camera Accessories

Camera Remote

Because of the slightly longer exposures required when you take landscape shots (especially when there is less light or you are doing night photography), it is often a good idea to invest in a camera remote. These range in price but a simple remote, simply to avoid camera movement can be purchased for as little as $5 and is definitely a worthwhile investment. You’ll need to find the remote that’s compatible with your camera, however.

As a habit, I use Camera Remotes when doing travel landscape photography. You see, every time you touch your camera, you introduce micro vibrations. These do affect (however smally), the quality of the image. By using a camera remote, you don’t introduce vibrations to your camera. Another alternative is to just use your DLSR’s timed shot feature

Camera Backpacks/Bags

Of course landscapes can demand a fair amount of hiking to decent vantage points so a good, well padded rucksack for the camera gear is a must. I have used a Lowe-pro Fastpack 250 for the last year or so which is comfortable to wear and gives fast access to the camera if I need it out in a hurry. More expensive, waterproof bags and rucksacks are great but I always keep a plastic, disposable, hooded poncho in the Fastpack which I can throw over myself AND the bag in the event of a freak shower.

Again, you could write a book on picking out the best camera backpack bag. In reality, you’ll probably never be satisfied with one backpack and end up with a bunch of different camera backpacks to use for different occasions. I’ll have a big post recommending the best landscape photography backpacks soon enough.

The great thing about photographing landscapes is simply getting outdoors with very little equipment. No, flash guns, no lighting, no big heavy lenses. So whether or not you choose to use a top notch DSLR or a simple point and shoot then keep it light and enjoy it.

JPEG OR RAW

DSLR’s will give you the option of shooting in either JPEG or RAW. There is a difference here. If you shot in JPEG, your in-camera processer will make colour adjustments to your photo. The picture will also be compressed and will lose a bit of quality.

RAW, on the other hand, is a sort of digital film negative. No in-camera picture adjustments will be made to the photo. Rather, you will have to upload the photo to your compute and made said adjustments yourself, using something like Adobe Lightroom. RAW also allows you to adjust the exposure by +1 or -1 stop without losing any quality.

RAW files are significantly larger in size, however, and there is considerable more work on your part required to process the RAW files, since the camera won’t do it.

As a general rule I use the highest quality JPEG setting for my day-to-day requirements if I’m not doing landscape photography or anything “important.” For example, if I am shooting wildlife, I use continuous shooting mode on the camera and like to get as much bang for my buck out of a 16gb memory card and this gives me the ability to shoot a continuous stream up to 170 shots. If I was to use RAW, I might only get a tenth as many pictures onto the same card AND since they are much bigger, I might not be able to shoot a continuous stream.

For landscapes, however, it is probably worth switching to RAW+JPEG. This usually decreases the number of continuous shots and uses a lot more memory but will give the maximum quality output and more flexibility in post production.

POST-PRODUCTION

There are two schools of thought when it comes to post production. Many photographers are quite purist preferring the idea that nature, knowledge, preparation and careful selection of a physical filter set should be enough to produce the desired image. However, a great number of photographers see post-production and digital enhancement as part and parcel of the art of photography. For general, day-to-day post production (and if you prefer not to spend too much) photo hosting sites such as Google’s Picasa and Yahoo’s Flickr not only provide a community with which to share your images but also offer decent photo imaging software for free.

Mid-range software includes Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop Elements. Photoshop offers some great features and filters but Lightroom is more photo-processing specific and is a worthwhile investment. With Lightroom you can add a range of filters and create pre-sets, for example re-processing your images as Black and White or creating colour separations that give your photograph a historical feel. Pre-sets in Photoshop are usually more complicated and involve programming a series of ‘Actions’ over various layers to get these results.

The greatest degree of flexibility is offered by the more expensive, high end software such as Adobe Photoshop CS5 but again, using an Open Source software such as GIMP is great way to get used to working in layers and adding effects and filters.

HDR processing (High Dynamic Range) is an increasingly popular method of presenting landscapes. This is a method of increasing the dynamic range between lighter and darker elements of the photograph and can be used to more accurately represent the way in which the human eye views a scene. Taken to its extreme HDR can render black and white images as ghostly and ethereal and colour images as intense and highly stylised. One of the most popular pieces of software for this is Photomatix Pro. In short, producing an HDR image involves taking 3 or more bracketed shots of the same scene using varying exposures then manipulating the differences with the software. The effect is possible with one shot but this takes a little more time and ingenuity.

But whatever you decide, whether it’s a camera phone or a DSLR just simply be inspired enough by what you see to take the shot. What do have to lose ?

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