My Learning Curve - Part 1

4. A Beginner's Guide To Landscape Photography

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Topsham - Devon. Long Exposure (but as luck would have it) the boat is stuck in the mud and so in sharp focus. Filters used - Lee ND Grad 0.6, Mahogany on whole image, Twilight on clouds. ISO 50, F22, 30 seconds. Canon 5D, Gitzo tripod, Markins ball head.


In writing this beginner's guide I would like to emphasise that I am VERY much on the upward slope of my own Landscape learning curve but believe I have accumulated sufficient reliable knowledge to be of help to the beginner.

I think I should start with equipment; you WILL need a good tripod to hold your camera STILL. The tripod should be as rigid and heavy as you can afford or are able to carry (never skimp on your tirpod, it will last for years and should be your best buddy). For those with ‘wobbly’ tripods, it may be worth considering hanging heavy objects – usually a handy rock or two – from some sort of home made sling arrangement between the legs of your tripod to aid stability. I use a Gitzo tripod with a good ball head most of the time but also occasionally a Manfrotto (I really like the quick leg closure button arrangement on this make).

My lens line up for landscape work includes a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and a fish eye (which I very rarely use). Of these lenses I would say I can do 95% of my shots with the 24-70mm. My camera of choice is a Canon 5D with an un-cropped sensor and good noise reduction properties. For cropped Canon sensors e.g. Cannon 40D, the EF 10 – 22mm is a cracking landscape lens. I prefer zoom lenses for their framing abilities otherwise you are constantly moving around and then cropping on the PC when you get home to get the composition you require. I have read that people commonly use their short focal length macro lenses for landscape work, I have not tried this yet so if you have one, give it a go before splashing out on a new lens.

You really should invest in at least one Neutral Density Grad filter – ND Grad – (Lee or Corkin or Kood are good makes) probably a 0.6 (In Lee Filter Language). The measures refer to the reduction in exposure stops that these filters produce, a 0.3 means it reduces the exposure by 1 stop, 0.6 2 stops and 0.9 3 stops. Graduated filters have a clear half with no effect to the image and a neutral density effect which reduces the light that passes onto your lens and then onto your sensor. They are used to BALANCE exposure between the sky and the ground. You will probably have taken photos on a normal sunny day where the sky came out perfectly exposed but the ground was hugely under exposed or, the opposite, the ground properly exposed and the sky horribly over exposed. These filters help you avoid this. They are applied via a filter holder which attaches to the end of your lens, you introduce the ND Grad filter and then align it, by looking through the camera (use the depth of filed preview button to help with alignment) so that the graduated part covers the sky and so reduces its exposure by the desired number of stops, thereby balancing your overall image so that the sky and ground are perfectly exposed. You may well now say - Oh I can do that in Photoshop by taking differently exposed images and then blending them, yes you can but I prefer the old fashioned way. While we are on the subject of filter holders, you will really need one that allows 3 filters, I think probably 4 may even be a good idea. For Lee and I think Corking you can bolt on extra attaching bits to do this. This is because you can combine ND Grad’s to get the required exposure compensation. I have found that I commonly use 2 combined for sunrise/sunset shots and then add a colour filter for extra effect.

ND Grad filters also come in two forms – hard and soft. I almost exclusively use the soft version. They differ in the abruptness of the division between clear and the ND Grad effect, sharp filters change abruptly and are good for really flat horizons, soft filters change gradually and are useful for uneven horizons, which is normally the case.

You will also need a polarizing filter to reduce reflections and help pep up the colour saturation a tad. They really work well on sky blues, flowers, greens and help to define clouds.

As you have probably guessed I am a bit of a filters freak, but I think the above are a basic minimum. On top of this you may well wish to consider sunset effect filters, warm up filters and special effects filters – though I do fully concede that many of these effects can easily be accomplished in Photoshop, again I just like doing it by filters wherever possible in the perhaps naïve belief that the image quality will be superior.

In Lee filter speak my most commonly used colour/effect filters are their Mahogany, Twilight and Coral filters.

You will also need a bag to put it all in and some plastic bin liners or ideally a couple of those tough plastic rubble sacks to put down on the ground to keep your gear clean and they can also cover your bag if it rains. It really is worth thinking CLEAN when you are out, keep you bag closed when you are not delving in it, especially in a beach environment, you don’t want sand or mud getting on your gear and then into your bag and inside your precious camera and lenses!

I also have a spirit level which attaches to the camera hot shoe, there is nothing more annoying than not getting the horizon straight and believe me this can be tricky at times, especially before sunrise or after sunset when you are doing long exposures in twilight conditions. I also carry a little torch and of course a remote release, though 70% of the time I use the timer facility on the camera to ensure that the action of closing the shutter does not wobble the camera. Lastly I take some lens cleaning gear with me.

If exposures are between 1/60th and ½ a second and you are using a telephoto lens (greater than 100mm) to isolate a landscape composition you may wish to consider using the Mirror Lock-up technique (MLU), the movement of the mirror within an SLR camera induces it most noticeable effect at these speeds – you will need to refer to your camera manual for further details. For lenses below 100mm focal length mirror vibration does not seem to have a noticeable effect on the image (according to some commentators).

And finally I always wear waterproof boots, and have waterproof trousers and a jacket, I always wrap up warm and take gloves with me. It can get really cold stood about taking landscape images. You don’t want to get wet feet or a chilled body. I always take a mobile phone and let someone know where I am going and what time I am likely to be back…...just in case.

So you are now weighted down with gear and look like the Michelin man with all your clothes, the next thing to consider is where are you going to go?

I am always on the look out for good landscape shots whenever I am out and about and I write them down in a little book so I don’t forget. I also think where the sun would be at sunrise and sunset - someone makes a really good compass, sun dial arrangement gadget to help with this but I can’t think of its name right now, I often take a compass with me to get a rough idea of East (sunrise) and West (sunset). I also consider the best place to stand and how easy it would be to get there in the dark!

Most of my landscape photography is done in the hour to hour and a half each side of sunrise and sunset. The softness and colours of the light and the colours in the sky are much the best at these times.

I also review popular views by surfing the net, looking at travel magazines, other photographer’s images, asking local people etc. to get ideas for places to go. With popular views that others have photographed thousands of times I really try and find a new angle that will make my image different. Locations can really change through the seasons so that also goes into the decision mix.

Now you know where you are going to go the next decision is when. I will consider:

Season – leaves on the trees, flowers, crops, frost, opportunities for mist, low lying fog etc.

Clouds – Do they look interesting, are they moody, how fast are they moving, etc.

Wind - How will the wind affect my images, will it add movement or make vegetation etc. move and become a detracting blur? What are the light conditions like to use shutter speed to accentuate or minimise this?

Tide times - A costal scene can change dramatically depending on the tides.

Position of the sun - I usually avoid the two hours either side of the middle of the day.
Sunrise or sunset opportunities, for these I always aim to arrive at least an hour before.

People - Times when there are likley to be no people or lots of people depending on what you are trying to achieve.

And any other relevant parameters that will affect the final image.

As part of my appraisal process for suitable landscape opportunities I also consider the composition. After a while you get a feel for how landscapes will look through the lens. You are looking for ‘lead ins’ to subjects e.g. roads, fences, tracks etc., landscape forms, how will the composition look when the rule of thirds and other compositional rules are applied and very importantly what sort of foreground detail is there to act as a lead in and tie in to the rest of the image e.g. interesting rocks or tree stumps, what ever really. I also believe in trying to simplify the composition where possible, if there’s to much going on it can detract from a photographic image but look OK to the human eye. It is also worth remembering that the human brain over emphasises things, I always consider logically exactly how much of the total view finder area my subject is actually filling, if the subject is only covering say 10% of view finder area it will not have any emphasis in the image even though your brain says it is prominent in the image.

For more ideas on landscape composition(and the use of filters) I would encourage you to search on the net or get a book dedicated to this subject. A proper explanation of composition and filters needs images and explanation which I cannot do here. An excellent starting point is:

Mackie, Tom. Landscape Photography Secrets. 2006. A David & Charles Book.

ISBN - 0 71543 2296 6
ISBN - 0 7153 2302 4

The following links are all excellent sources of information on composition:

Link To - A Superb Site With Many Excellent Links To Composition Articles and Extracts From Numerous Books

Link To - Digital Photography School Summary Site on Composition

Regarding the sun, if you take shots with the sun full on in your view finder at sunrise and sunset it will nearly always look awful, however that does not stop me playing around trying to make the most of things until it has actually gone down or risen higher when your images will drastically improve. Also be weary of the sun producing specular highlight effects even when you are not pointing at it, this usually happens when the sun is low and only slightly to the side of your subject even though it is not in your view. A good lens hood and holding you hand or a piece of card to shade your lens (out of view) will help here.

If I really like an image and it has been affected by specular highlight effects, if there not to bad I usually use the Photoshop clone or patch tool to remove them.

Now we come to some critical technique bits, what F stop to use, ISO etc.

I always try to use ISO 100 or 50 (I must admit that I can’t really tell any difference in practice between ISO 50 and ISO 100 but feel I should use ISO 50 when I can !), I always have the long exposure noise reduction function activated (see your cameras instruction manual).

Some people keep there F stop at 11, I tend to like to use 13 to even 22. I know that lens images can degrade from 13 onwards and most lenses are best at 8 to 13 but in most of the landscape images I do I am really trying to get the feeling of depth, perhaps I am over doing this with F22 and this is an area I am acutely aware that I am still learning. I have read that others stick to just F13, especially if they are using a focal length below 35mm. I think you will have to find your own nirvana here which will depend on your equipment and landscape subjects.

Regarding focus, books say that you should focus a third of the way into the scene, with the high F stop and focus at this point your depth of field will mean that the whole image from front to back will be in focus, even though it may not look like it in the view finder. I have tried this and it works most of the time, when it doesn’t work the foreground is a little out of focus. I tend to always focus manually, and use the depth of field preview button to test the depth of field. Now I hear you say, but how can you do that in the dark before sunrise and get a focused long exposure image. To that I say, I know that if I manually focus my lenses at a certain point on the lens focus distance widow on the top of the lens then at F13 and upwards the whole subject from as close as a couple of meters from the camera out to infinity will be focused – I just know this from practice.

You have now framed your image, selected an F stop, ISO and checked depth of field to ensure good focus. All that is needed is to release the shutter.

Because you are using a low ISO and high F stop your shutter speed will be slow (I usually use the AV setting here or sometimes Bulb if an exposure of more than 30 seconds is required). To release the shutter you will need a remote release cable or use the self timer function, if you have a 2 second shutter release option that’s ideal, my 5D has a 10 second so when this becomes an issue I use the cable release. Cable release is the only option for Bulb operation.

Having taken the image I then review it and especially the histogram to check the exposure is OK and then if required adjust the shutter speed to correct exposure or if a big correction is required, change ISO (and shutter speed) especially if I am tangling with exposure levels of around 30 seconds.

Sometimes the horizon may not look level when you review the image but if you have used your spirit level TRUST it!

At sunrise/sunset things can happen really quickly as the light changes and clouds pass by etc. so concentrate and keep you eyes open for new opportunities. Don’t forget to look behind you for opportunities as well. I very much tend to pick a spot and try to quell the urge to move around lots, especially at these times of quick change. However between long exposures I go running off to look at things from different perspectives, think about having the tripod higher or lower etc. to make the most of the subject. I also carry a little point and shoot digital with me and take a few preliminary snaps at different locations to see where the best compositions are possible without committing myself to setting up everything only to then change my mind. If I see a genuinely better opportunity then I move as quickly as possible. I also play wildly with different filters to learn what they will do and see what I can make of the subject. This is especially true if I have made a lot of effort to get to a spot and conditions aren’t good e.g. lots of grey cloud or not much of a spectacular sunrise. You can then think black and white or IR or compose landscapes which exclude the dull sky but make use of the great diffused light. But that’s another topic.