Jessica Holden Photography » My Photo Journal

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Landscape Photography Tutorial

The second in my Tutorials series! (To see the rest of the series, click on the Tutorials link in the menu items above!)

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There are some general “rules” for landscape photography. First of all, you will probably be happiest with wider angled lenses, staying at roughly 35 mm or lower. When shooting, the most obvious rule is to shoot at higher (smaller) apertures in order to get everything into focus (although I have also seen some lovely, artistic images where something in the foreground is in focus, for example a reed on a beach, and the background is softly blurred—that is certainly a fun and beautiful approach as well!). f/13 is a good starting point to test and then zoom in on your LCD to be sure everything you want sharp is sharp. When you are shooting with such a small aperture opening, you will also likely need to bump up your ISO to higher than you think in order to keep your shutterspeed acceptably fast. For my shutterspeed, I tend to aim for 1/200, or even faster if there is any wind that might affect any less-stable portions of my image, like plants. (Again, though, shutterspeed is a variable you might want to consider in a more artistic sense: For example, you might want your waves to be silky and smooth which requires a long shutterspeed (usually even less than 1/30, requiring a tripod), or you might want to freeze every glistening droplet of a wave crashing powerfully against a rock, necessitating a super high shutter of 1/1000 or even greater.)

For this image, I wanted to show the movement of the fields flying by us on a car ride, so I slowed my shutter a bit.

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A tripod is definitely helpful for landscape, though I am lazy and I rarely carry mine. It is necessary, though, for certain types of landscape photography where you’ll be using a very slow shutterspeed, like when smoothing the water in waterfalls or the ocean or when shooting night scenes. (Note that when shooting in broad daylight, it might be tricky to use very long exposures because even at an ISO of 100 and with a wide open aperture, a long shutter might still let in too much light, so you might need to invest in a neutral density filter which will reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor.) A flash is unnecessary and in fact generally useless (because it won’t reach far enough) for most landscape photography unless you have an object in the foreground (like a person) that you want to illuminate independently of the landscape scene.

But after the technical stuff is where, to me, the fun really comes into play, and that is the creative part of it. As with all aspects of photography, consideration of your end result before you even press the shutter will give you a stronger image. Do you want the photo to portray a sense of magnitude that will make the viewer feel small and awed? Then pay attention to your framing and select a wider angle. Do you want to draw special attention to a particular object, like a sailboat or a plant? Then carefully selecting your aperture or determining where in your frame to place that object might become crucial. Do you want to portray movement? Then shutterspeed becomes your most important variable. Each of these will require a slightly different approach to your photo.

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Probably the most important aspect of landscape photography is composition. Like with portraiture, it helps with composition to consider the rule of thirds. In landscape photography, when composing with the horizon in mind, you will want to consider which visually holds the most appeal to you: the sky or the land? This will help you decide whether to give the land or the sky the bulk of your image. (And don’t forget to keep your horizon straight! Of course it’s an easy fix in Photoshop or Lightroom, but you will lose some of your carefully composed edges in the process, and more than once this has ruined my shot completely.)

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If you find your sky and your landscape to be equally interesting, it can work to center your horizon if the horizon itself is not perfectly flat; that is, if it is “broken up” by trees, buildings, or even mountains. (There are always exceptions, of course, but a perfectly flat horizon, for example the ocean, will generally slice your photo in half, creating a much less visually appealing image.)

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When considering how to compose your photo on the vertical axis, as in portraiture, it helps to place a point of interest on one of the “rule of thirds” intersections. But in landscape photography especially, you will often find that symmetry can provide an equally powerful image.

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Another tip for landscape photography is to use natural framing in your foreground to lead the viewer visually back into your image. Tree branches, rocks, the edges of buildings: all can provide a natural “boundary” to your photo, creating an anchor for your viewer that helps to draw them into your image. This too can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, depending on what’s available and how you want your photo to feel. A symmetrical composition will give a feel of containment and tidiness, while an asymmetrical photo can provide more of a sense of vastness.

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Be aware while taking landscape images of distracting objects in the frame and try to recompose to avoid wires, fire hydrants, poles, and the like (or, if that is impossible, try to compose in such a way as to make those items easy to clone out in the final image). Equally important is to consider leading lines in your composition. For example, in the following image, I worked with the “y” formed by the road and the dock to lead the viewer’s eye to what I found to be the most interesting part of the scene, which was the gorgeous light hitting the boats. The “y” roughly appears where the rule-of-thirds lines intersect, and then the dock leads the eye through what I felt was the most visually appealing part of the photo.

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And here’s an example where I didn’t consider my end result while shooting. For this photo I was thinking of the rule of thirds, and I carefully placed my horizon, where the sky meets the water, along that upper third line, leaving the prettiest portion of the photo in the lower two thirds of the frame. However, I also should have shifted my camera a tad to my right, because as it is I awkwardly chopped off the edge of the waterline. This would have been a much stronger image had the leading lines of the water not led the viewer straight back out of the photo!

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Another thing to consider with landscape photography is timing. In some cases it works best to wait until the moment is perfect: the clouds are in the prettiest position, the cars or people are out of the frame momentarily (or placed where you want them in the image), the crashing of the waves is at its biggest (or smallest!), the sailboat is perfectly positioned…

Finally, editing landscape shots is very different from editing portraits. Since you don’t generally need to worry about skin tones, you really can go a bit crazy when boosting your contrast, blacks, saturation, and vibrance. Even sharpness is a bit more forgiving in landscape photography. Watch that you don’t lose too much detail in your shadows or highlights, or make your images lose their realistic look, but otherwise you can go a little nuts and make the scene look as vibrant, or as soft, as you want to remember it!

Shooting landscapes can be a nice break, especially since your subjects tend to be quite cooperative. Have fun!