Advertisement

The Best Way to Learn Landscape Photography

by
Student iconAre you a student? Get a yearly Tuts+ subscription for $45 →

As one of the most practiced forms of photography, landscapes attract many to pick up a camera and start shooting. Photographers enticed to capture unique scenes are constantly striving to make great photographs of the areas that surround them. Because of this, many photographers are looking for ways to improve their craft of making fine landscape photos, and today we'll take a look at how to get started in landscape photography.


Gain an interest

With any form of photography, the first step is to gain an appreciation for the craft at hand. After picking up a few National Geographic magazines (which in my opinion feature the world's best landscape and wildlife photographs) during my first semester in college, I began to be interested in the landscape form of photography. I was enthralled by the way that great photographers could capture scenes and make them appear so lifelike.

For me, my path to appreciating landscape photography was often a frustrating one. Although I could admire great landscape photographs, I was often left with the feeling that I was wasting my time trying to capture nature and always coming up short. Indeed, no photograph can perfectly capture the entirety of any landscape scene, but the camera provides us with the opportunity to portray and share a piece of the exciting scenes that are the background to our lives.


Your area's public parks are a great place to start shooting. Photo by Cameron Knight

In time, I have come to the realization that although I do not desire to be a well known landscape photographer, capturing my fair share of landscapes is an important part of my personal photo making goals. Documenting what surrounds me and preserving memories of scenes as they currently exist is something I have deemed as being important to my personal collection.

I'll never be a professional landscape photographer, but making landscape photos helps me to round out my skill and personal portfolio. What will drive you in your pursuit of landscape photography?


One of only a few landscape photographs that I've made, this scene of a campfire at my house last fall helped me realize that making landscapes is all about capturing scenes for a brief moment.

Get the gear

Although the tool is only as good as the carpenter, it certainly helps to choose the right gear for the task at hand. Landscape photography requires certain gear to improve the final product. And it may not be the type of gear that immediately comes to mind.

When it comes to camera bodies, this may be the least important part of the equation. Almost any DSLR - or even a great film SLR - will serve you well in the field. Last generation's camera is still plenty adequate for making a great landscape photo. You are much better off saving your money for lenses and other expenses.


Grindstone Lake in southwestern New Mexico. Photo by Cameron Knight

When it comes to lenses, your options are numerous. Many photographers tend to choose wide angle lenses. If you shoot a crop factor camera, lenses in the 10-24mm range are great choices for getting all of a scene in the frame. These wide angle photos allow you to place your camera in the middle of the scene and let the viewer's eye take in all that surrounds it.

Other photographers prefer midrange lenses between 35 and 50mm, and still others will choose telephotos to capture long range landscapes like mountain ranges. As always, trying different perspectives will help you to understand what best suits your shooting style. My suggestion is to start with a wide angle lens and grow from there. Add ons like circular polarizing filters can improve the contrast and cut reflections from bodies of water.


Nikon's 14-24mm ultra wide angle lens is a top choice for landscape photographers looking to capture an entire scene.

Finally, it is essential to choose a great tripod. This is the key to steady, sharp photos and can be found attached to the bag of almost any great landscape photographer. When it comes to choosing a tripod, don't skimp out!

It can be a huge mistake to place your multi thousand dollar SLR and lens atop a $25 plastic tripod. Choosing a steady tripod with a good head attached to it is one of the biggest steps you can take to improving your landscapes.

It allows you to use smaller apertures, and still maintain steady shots at slower shutter speeds. Additionally, I find that using a tripod slows down my shooting process and makes me focus more on the image making process. Looking at the benefits of the tripod, all of these contribute to better images.

Along with these pieces of gear, don't forget to purchase add ons that will protect and preserve your prized equipment. Filters will protect the investment in your high dollar lenses by placing a barrier to the optics. Don't neglect to choose a great bag that is both comfortable to carry and large enough for your gear. Also, pack enough batteries and cards for your landscape getaways!


Take a trip!

Landscape photography isn't like portrait photography. You can't simply manufacture a shot by providing a white seamless backdrop. Before springing for another lens or the filter you've been wanting, the most important part of great landscape shots is putting yourself in environments that beg to be photographed. Taking a trip to great scenic spots, as well as venturing off the path on your own, is essential to capturing the scenes that will set your work apart.


Photo by Cameron Knight

Sometimes, it can be hard to appreciate the areas in which you live. A friend visiting from out of state marveled at the Appalachian Mountains that I've grown up in. Having always lived in my region and, I had never understood that not every photographer was as privileged as I was with amazing mountain trails, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks. Gaining an appreciation for what's around you, as well as venturing outside of it is a great way to broaden your landscape horizons.


Patience is a virtue

When I think of landscape photography, I think of the perseverance of the National Geographic photographers I read about. These are the types of shooters who will camp for days chasing animals to photograph, or perch waiting for the right weather conditions for the landscape that they have envisioned.


Photo by Cameron Knight

It is this type of dedication that I lack, and is what certainly sets apart the hobbyist landscape shooters like myself from the great shooters.

We all know that the key to great photography is great light. Again, landscape photography is so unique because lighting a canyon, mountain, or waterfall isn't as simple as putting a light in a softbox and lighting a portrait. The landscape photographer is at the mercy of the conditions of nature, although superior technique and an eye for portraying scenes is the key to wrangling nature to your will.

If you are the type that loves to camp and stay overnight, you'll greatly improve your chances of catching photos in great light. Those "golden hours" - just as the comes up or sets - have set the stage for many of history's finest landscape photographs. Taking a trip and pushing yourself to photograph the landscape at these hours is perhaps the top method of capturing fine landscape photographs.

To quote the great Ansel Adams, "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs." It is hard to quantify what good light looks like. There is no equation for the perfect light, but we all know that there is some lighting that looks better than others. I think we all know a great photograph when we see it, and given that light is the key to great photographs, put yourself in the position for great light and you will succeed.


Photo by Cameron Knight

Touch up On retouching

In the era of the digital workflow, post processing is an important part of almost any photographer's toolkit. Although landscape photographs lack skin to retouch, there are a variety of techniques used to improve the look of landscape photos.

Many landscape photographers will bracket their shots. This means that they will take photographs at a variety of exposures, and then combine them in the post production stage. One of the most common ways of doing so is HDR, or high dynamic range photography. This type of photography uses these varying exposures to increase the range of digital data that can be captured in a photo.

Even with advanced techniques, it is also important to brush up on basic post processing skills. Understanding the effects and controls over contrast, brightness, exposure and features such as sharpening will improve the outcome of any photograph. Landscapes are no exception.

Many photographers feel that to retouch landscapes past a certain extent is cheating, or an unfair way of enhancing a photo. However, even the classics such as Ansel Adams would spend hours in the darkroom, dodging and burning film prints to shape the final photos to his exact liking.

In fact, what Adams was doing was very much a form of high dynamic range (HDR) photography, by combining light and dark exposures to increase the range of what a camera could capture.


This image demonstrates a different way to deal with high contrast situations. In this image, the contrast was exaggerated. Photo by Cameron Knight

Conclusion

Landscape photography interests many and sets thousands of photographers on the quest to capture nature's finest scenes. If you have a budding interest in landscape photography, the above mentioned steps and tips are great ways to cultivate your interest and improve your results.

Capturing landscapes is an exciting process, and even if you can't capture the scene exactly you remember it, photographs are essential to preserving a scene and sharing it with others.

Advertisement