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Shooting an Incredible Lit Landscape From Start to Finish

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This post is part of a series called Landscape Photography.
13 Steps for Creative Coastline Photography
Quick Tip: Finding Locations Which You Never Knew Existed

Landscape photography is an area rarely associated with artificial lighting - there are few forms of photography more dependent on the sun than outdoor and landscape shooting. However, in this tutorial, I'll show you how tricky or even boring landscapes can be brought to life with a little lighting.

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Step 1. Recommended Equipment

For this tutorial, you're going to need all the basics and, if you'd like, some special gear. First, you'll need a camera with manual shutter speed that extends to at least 30 seconds. A tripod is also pretty important to keep that camera steady during those 30 seconds.

You'll also need at least one standalone flash that has a test fire button and at least a full power setting. Better yet, get one with manual settings. I used an old Vivitar 283 with a varipower modules. And finally, you'll need your running shoes.

Step 2. Optional Equipment

To make this technique easier to execute, several flashes could be used. You could also elect to use wireless flash triggers (although they may not transmit the distances that you need them to) or you could enlist your friends to help you.

A camera that has a remote trigger could also make things easier, and a remote with a bulb or T setting would really be nice. That said, the execution of the photo I made for this tutorial was completed without any of this optional equipment.

Step 3. Scouting An Area

In the photo below, you'll see the initial area that I was hoping to do this shoot. It's a pond in a location I'm familiar with. Upon arriving, I noticed that the shore was completely overgrown with branches, trees and poison ivy. This led me to rethink my plan.

I needed to find a scene in which I could move around easily in the dark, and that didn't carry with it a severe danger of drowning. With multiple flashes and some friends, your area of coverage could essentially be endless.

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Step 4. Looking Beyond The Clutter

I switched locations to a quaint garden scene with some nice trees in the background. As I waited for darkness, I snapped the photo below. As you can see, the scene is cluttered. There are tables, part of a house, a grill, and some chairs sitting in the yard.

Using natural light, it's hard to isolate a subject. You're eye floats around the scene because there's nothing to latch on to. If that's not bad enough, the sun was directly to my back when this was shot, so the light is very flat and not very dramatic.

During this time before dark, I decided what items in the scene I wanted to emphasize. These ended up being the trees, and some of the plants in the garden.

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Step 5. Determining Your Angle

Once I chose the items in the scene that I felt were most important. It was easy to determine the best angle to make them fill the frame. The plants could cover some of the empty yard, so I needed to get low.

Think of it as editing an entire set of images from a photo shoot. There will be a lot of images in the full set that aren't bad, but every single picture doesn't need to stay in for you to accomplish your goal. By carefully framing and by choosing a low angle, I was able to “edit" out some of the less important parts of the scene.

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Step 6. Determining Your Exposure

Once you've got your angle determined, you'll need to determine what your camera's exposure should be set at. I always start by setting my camera to it's lowest ISO setting. This means that the camera will need a lot of light to make an exposure. I then set my shutter speed to it's longest setting. My camera does have a bulb setting, but since no one will be manning the camera during the exposure, I set it at 30 seconds.

This is the time to bust out that tripod. I then use the camera's light meter to adjust the aperture to expose for the sky since this is the only bit of natural light I want to show up. You can also see that the light from the window showed up. I didn't notice this before, so for the next shot I composed vertically to continue the “editing" process I mentioned earlier.

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Step 7. Determining Flash Distance

The process for taking this image is pretty straight forward. I tripped the shutter on my camera and ran around the area popping my flash at the things I wanted illuminated. The tricky part is nailing the flash exposure.

In my final image I fired my single flash four different times in four different locations. The entire time my flash was on full power. In order to ensure that the flash exposures were all relatively equal in each area, I just took some test shots where I fired the flash at different distances.

The closer you are to the thing you're illuminating, the brighter the exposure will be. So instead of trying to adjust the power on my flash, I just made sure that I was the same distance from each of the subjects. For this situation, I found the correct distance to be around 5 meters.

You can see a test shot below where I only illuminated one part of the image. You'll also notice that by flipping the camera to a vertical orientation, I was able to incorporate the moon into the photo... a lucky break!

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Step 8. Doing A Test Run

You've got your running shoes, right? In the photo below, you can see very distinctly where I fired the flash. Once in the foreground and then three separate firings on the trees in the background. To give myself some extra time, I also turned on the self-timer feature of my camera. This allowed me to get in position for my first flash before the shutter tripped.

As soon as the shutter tripped, I would fire the flash and run to the next position and the next and the next and the next. All in 30 seconds. As you can tell, because I was moving and the light from the flash wasn't hitting me, I didn't show up in the photo at all. You can see that this shot looks different from my final image. Read on to find out why.

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Step 9. The Final Shot

The image above was shot at the same height and angle as the final image shown below, but in the final image, the camera is positioned about 1 meter closer to the row of plants. I didn't realize how bright the dirt in front of the plants was going to be, and I found it to be too distracting.

So, again, I kept editing what I didn't want in the frame. This technique gives you complete control over what you want to emphasize. Under natural light, the house and the objects in the yard were the brightest points in the image. With this type of lighting, they play a much less dominant role.

Also, when shooting this in natural light, all the elements were equally lit, competing with each other for attention. Now there is a clear subject.

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I hope this tutorial inspires you to experiment with shooting lit landscapes. Flash doesn't need to be relegated to the studio - bring it out at night, and see what you can produce! Get a few friends together and make a night of it.

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