Wide-angle lenses do a number of things very well - one of them is the ability to keep near and far objects in focus, and present the landscape in a striking light. In this tutorial I will show you how get the most from your wide-angle lens for scenic nature shots.
Step 1 - Gear Recommendation
To get the most from wide-angle photography you will first need a wide-angle lens. This can be either a prime lens or a zoom lens. If your camera has a crop factor of 1.6 then consider starting with a 10 mm lens. If your camera has a full frame sensor then 16 mm good place to start.
In this tutorial I used a Canon 5D with a 16-35 mm lens (set to 16mm) and a tripod. Because I worked with a fairly small aperture setting, using a tripod helps with the resulting slow shutter speed. Even on sunny days it is helpful to use a tripod to obtain maximum sharpness.
Step 2 - Locating Subjects
Because a wide-angle lens takes in more than what your eyes are used to seeing, it requires a slightly different way of looking at subject matter to find a decent photo. And because this type of shot is typically done using a vertical orientation, you will need to get used to looking at near and far subjects and how to best combine them in a single picture.
The good news is once you get used to this way of looking at the world, it becomes fairly easy to find subject matter all around. A city park, mountain vistas, even the sidewalk on your way to work. The key is to find interesting subjects near and far that have decent lighting, nothing too harsh, and can benefit from a wide angle point of view. It also helps if there is a common theme in the subject matter throughout the picture. Look for a smooth transition between foreground and background subjects.
I took the photo featured here on a stormy day at the beach on Whidbey Island, Washington. As it was November when this photo was taken, signature gray clouds cover the sky and yet a bit of sunlight pokes through. The wind was blowing at about 15MPH straight off the water making the use of a tripod vital for getting a sharp photo. I wanted to capture a bit of everything the beach had to offer; rocks, surf, driftwood, the bluff and the sky.
Step 3 - Setting Up The Shot
Before I set up the tripod I walked around the beach with the camera, trying to find an interesting angle. At first I wanted to get a picture of the driftwood, but the jumbled mass just did not appeal to me. While the beach is not very wide, I knew using a wide-angle lens would cause the rock field to look massive and that is one of the beauties of using a wide-angle lens. Something small can be made much larger when viewed close up.
After finding a suitable shooting location, I attached the camera to my tripod and lowered it into a vertical shooting orientation. When setting the tripod legs with this much weight on the side of the tripod, it is important to position the camera directly over one of the tripod legs. Failure to do so can likely cause the tripod to topple over, smashing your camera. Keep the camera fairly low to the ground and close to foreground subject matter. You can see in the photo here I have kept the tripod legs at their shortest extension. You can also see from this photo that the horizon is slanted indicating the beach slopes away to the left.
At this point make sure you are comfortable working with the camera and not knocking the tripod over. If need be, add some weight on the tripod legs to help ensure nothing tips.
Step 4 - Composing The Shot
When composing these types of shots, keep an eye on the horizon. While the rule of thirds is a good start, it is okay to include more foreground than background and move the horizon just a bit further up the image. Do not be afraid to move the camera around to bring different subjects into focus. Experimentation is half the fun of photography!
Step 5 - Dealing With Lighting
As with other types of nature photography, wide-angle shots can be as varied as the lighting situations present. Consider where shadows fall on the objects in the photo. Is the light in front of you, or behind you? The Golden Hours just before sunset and just after sunrise provide wonderful lighting for wide-angle nature photography.
My photo was shot just after midday and it shows in the harsh lighting beyond the clouds. Personally, I like this effect, but it might not be your cup of tea. It is ideal with wide-angle nature photography to not have too broad of a range in the lighting situation. So while the background is bright, the rest of the photo is evenly lit thanks to the gray clouds.
Step 6 - Exposure Mode
When going for a maximum depth of field, it is best to use the time value or aperture mode. On some cameras this is an A for aperture, or TV for time value. The higher this number the more depth of field. Realize though that a lot of lenses have a sweet spot closer to the middle than at the maximum aperture.
From experimentation I have found that f/16 is a good general starting point for most wide-angle shots with my lens. Because I am using the time value mode, the camera will select the appropriate shutter speed when I am ready to take the picture.
Step 7 - ISO
Using a tripod allows for a much slower ISO. Use the lowest setting you're comfortable with as this will result in the least amount sensor noise. Again choosing a low ISO and a high aperture setting will result in a slow shutter speed, further necessitating the need for a tripod. It will also cause blurring if there is too much movement in your photo. In this example the shutter speed ended up being 1/13 of a second.
Step 8 - Shoot In RAW Mode
If your camera has RAW shooting capabilities it is best to shoot in this mode for this type of photography. This will allow for the most freedom in post-production editing.
Step 9 - Exposing For The Highlights
If your subject matter has a harsh lighting situation such as this example, I would suggest exposing for the highlights. By this I mean under exposing the foreground subjects if the background is brightly lit. You can see from the photo below, that was exposed at the camera's suggested settings (1/3 of a second at f/16), while the foreground is nicely lit, the sky is all but unusable. It is generally preferred to have things a little too dark than blown out. Once details are blown out they cannot be recovered in post processing.
To compensate for the bright sky, I under exposed the shot by two full stops. While this makes the foreground much darker, I will fix that in post processing.
Step 10 - Import Into Photoshop Lightroom
Upon importing the photo into Photoshop Lightroom, I'm presented with a rather drab, dark, uninteresting photo. I'll be changing that in the next ten steps, but for now this is how the photo looked straight out of the camera.
Step 11 - Shadow Recovery
I started by adding some fill light to bring out the foreground rocks. In this case the setting is +67.
Step 12 - Highlight Recovery
I set the highlight recovery slider to +83 to tone down the bright sky. As I mentioned before, it's hard to recover blown out highlights but Lightroom does its best.
Step 13 - Black Clipping And Contrast Adjustments
Black clipping is set to +8 and contrast is moved up to +37. This brings a little more mood back into the foreground.
Step 14 - Vibrance
Adding in some vibrancy, with a setting of +38, reveals some character in the rocks of the foreground. However there is a little too much yellow in the picture for my liking, so I brought down the yellow saturation by -43.
Step 15 - Temperature And Brightness
This beach still looks a little cold, but pumping up the temperature to 5300 helps. Also moving the brightness to +50 draws life into the picture.
Step 16 - Saturation
Moving the saturation slider up to +45 brings distinction to much of the rocks. It also gives things a bit of a green tint. To adjust this I move the tint up 4 notches.
Step 17 - Adjust Highlight Tones
I can still bring down the harshness of the sky by reducing highlight tones to -86.
Step 18 - Luminescence Shifts
Fiddling with some luminescence shifts, I adjusted yellow up +5. Also blue luminescence was corrected to -48 which adds a little more contrast to the clouds. Finally green luminescence is dropped to -71 to call attention to the rocks again.
Step 19 - Remove Dust And More Black Clipping
Using the dust spot removal tool I take out the many dust spots my sensor has inherited over time. To give the foreground even more punch I adjust the black clipping to +38. This locks in the wetness of the rocks and sets the mood well.
Step 20 - Clarity
I always prefer a little bit of clarity adjustment so I increased the slider to +33.
And there you have it! The adjustments for vibrancy, saturation and luminescence shifts have brought about the wet look for the rocks that existed that day. The sky is bleak yet with some character. And the overall look contains the coldness of this fall day at the beach.