Landscape Shooting

Yellowstone Caldera
Yellowstone Caldera

I realized today that I don’t actually have a blog post yet about landscapes – which seemed more than a little odd, given that it’s a large proportion of what I shoot.  Time to rectify that!

I’m going to organize this into two parts – how to prepare for the shoot, and how to actually execute on it.

First off, the prep.  Yes, you can just show up and get good material sometimes.  And it’s not always going to be practical to do all this legwork in advance.  However, it will improve your odds, and is especially helpful if you’re not likely to be back at the location again (for example, a honeymoon trip to the far side of the world).

Research the area you’ll be going to.  Look up photos online, with Google Images or Earth, photography magazines, photo websites, Flickr, and so on.  This will give you an idea of what’s available.  Of particular note is stuff that’s tagged with the exact location/direction of the shot.  That can be hard to come across, and some photographers guard that info like it’s Fort Knox, but it’s fantastically helpful if you can get hold of it.

If you can, scout the location well in advance of the shoot, at multiple times of day.   That’ll give you a better idea of what you’re dealing with, first-hand, and where the light and the scene are most intriguing to you.

Check the weather, road conditions, and emergency info for when and where you’re shooting!  It’s always better to avoid a rainstorm or forest fire.  Even if they can be interesting subject matter for photography, safety comes first!

And before you go, decide on time of day that you want to shoot.  You’ll see a lot of folks talk about the “golden hour” (one hour each surrounding sunrise and sunset).  Light is more horizontal on landscapes during this time, and has a softer, more colorful feel to it.  You can find sunrise/set times either using an App on your smartphone, or by looking it up at NOAA’s website.  This does not mean that other times of day are no good!  And in particular watch out for mountainous areas … sunrise/set does not mean the sun is over the mountains (see an older post of mine about sunrises).

Here’s an example of golden hour vs. middle of the day

Mono Lake Tufas, Mid Day
Mono Lake Tufas, Mid Day
Mono Lake Tufas, Sunrise
Mono Lake Tufas, Sunrise

Secondly, the execution.  There are a few items you’re really going to want to have on you when you do this.

  • Tripod
  • Remote release for your camera (cable or wireless remote)
  • Graduated neutral density filters (preferably more than one)

The tripod and release will guarantee stability for your shot.  The last thing you need is to think you had a great shoot to find only blurry images when you load your files onto the computer (and don’t trust your LCD screen!).  The grad ND’s will make it easier to get the right exposure for the whole shot without having to resort to HDR or multiple exposures.  Basically they are used to darken a part of the shot that’s much lighter than the rest, so that the exposure is as close as it can be to being the same throughout the frame.

When you find your shot, look for fun fore- and mid-ground elements too.  That will add more interest and help draw the viewer’s eye around the photo, making them linger longer to appreciate what you’ve put together.

In general, shoot on the lowest ISO (controls how sensitive the sensor or film is to light) and smallest f—stop (the size of the opening the light passes through to get to the sensor/film) you can get away with.  This will keep your shot from having a lot of “noise” (grainy images) and the largest depth of field (more stuff in focus).  Bear in mind, this will likely mean you’ll have to increase exposure time beyond what you’d otherwise use.  This is another reason having a tripod is so important!

It’s also a great idea to bracket your shots.  This means that once you have the right exposure, also take photos that are exposed one stop above and below that exposure (most easily achieved by doubling and halving the exposure time).  On the off chance your initial exposure was not spot-on, this is a great way to CYA.  You can also use your histogram to check how good an exposure you got.

Next time I think I’ll go more in-depth about exposure since it got so much mention here.  But for now I’ll leave you with this.

Skim Board at Sunset on the Beach in Oregon
Skim Board at Sunset on the Beach in Oregon

Happy shooting!

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