If you type the words “better landscape photography” in Google, there would be more than 8 million results. That’s a whopping number when it comes to landscape photography tips. With all that information you might think that the world knows how to take better landscape images. Unfortunately, the story is not quite what it seems. Most of the times a photographer is unsure of the basics of composition, exposure and framing; the key ingredients for any good landscape photo, and for that matter any good photo. So what you get is a plethora of bad exposures, harsh tones and lost details. Photoshopping isn’t the answer to all your woes. You need to be able to get as much of the image correct in-camera as possible.
If you want to take great landscape images, the first thing you should master is knowing when to shoot. Landscape photos are best captured during the golden hour (sometimes refereed to as magic hour). That would be the time at dawn and dusk when the sun is close to the horizon. The rays of light travel almost parallel to the surface of the earth and turns everything into gold (metaphorically speaking!). Landscape photographers who make a living out of shooting great images absolutely love this time of the day.
So, does that mean it is forbidden to shoot at high noon? Not at all. You can shoot at any time of the day. Let’s say you arrive at the Uluru at 2 in the afternoon. Would you not take images? Sure you will. But that is the time when you have to really think and be creative to capture something tasteful. Different times of the day will give your photos a different look. Alternatively, if you purposefully, want high contrast monochrome, shoot at noon or on a moonlit night. There are numerous app on the market that can help you track the sun and nail your timing. Check out LightTrac for example.
Never leave home without your circular polarizer, neutral density filters and a tripod. If you are wondering what is a circular polarizer or a neutral density filter, then check out our Using Lens Filters article for an idea on what they are and what they can do. You will be amazed to see the kind of difference just a turn of a circ polarizer can make. Neutral density filters, like circ polarizers, are powerful accessories to get the exposure correct in camera. ND filters stop all wave lengths of light without prejudice which makes them ideal for use when you want to stop a certain amount of light from the foreground (or background) to make the overall exposure balanced. ND filters are used together with circ polarizers, making arguably the most important pair of accessories beyond the camera body and the lens for landscape photography.
3. Master the Zone System
The zone system developed 70 years ago by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer has remained the benchmark for proper exposures, in any lighting conditions. Though the original zone system segregated an entire scene into ten different zones based on their luminance, digital photographers are mostly worried about five. These would be +2, +1, 0, -1 and -2 EV. This would be zone III, IV, V, VI and VII respectively. Please note, you lose or gain one stop of light as you move from one zone to the other depending on whether you are going right to left or left to right.
Using spot metering, place a bright aspect of the scene and meter for it. Adjust your exposure so that it is set to +2 EV. Ideally you should be adjusting the shutter speed so that the depth of field remains unaffected. Now, theoretically, the darker bits should fall in zone III. A good landscape image should incorporate some amount of darkest black and whitest white while ensuring that the rest fall in between zone III to zone VII. For a more in depth look you can check out our Zone System for Digital Exposures article.
4. Master the Basics of Exposure
But before you can have a mastery of the zone system you will need to have a thorough mastery of the basics of exposure. If you don’t have that it is highly recommended that you check out some of the resources on exposure on our website. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three parameters that govern all types of photography. They are inversely related with each other, meaning, if you increase the shutter speed, the aperture used must be bigger. Or if you use a higher ISO number the shutter speed must be sped-up.
5. Join a Good Course on Landscape Photography
Initially the name of this article was supposed to be “Better landscape photos in 5 easy steps.” But I wouldn’t call this 5th step such an easy one. If you are serious about landscape photography, you should consider joining a class or a workshop. It will take planning and some investment but you will learn more in a single session than you would if you shoot for hours on your own and read hundreds of pages combined. Check out our extensive article on Photography Workshops.