Lesson 16: Landscape Photography
I have always appreciated the beauty of nature, and the joys of travel. I remember, as a young boy, backpacking 12 miles into the Grand Canyon, through the Havasupai Indian Reservation, and finally arriving at Havasu Falls. I had never seen a more stunning and vibrant body of blue-green water in my entire life, and I wanted to remember it forever. Space in my backpack was tight and the pack was already filled to the brim with a week’s worth of food and camping gear. Unfortunately, the only camera I had room for was a Kodak 35mm disposable camera.
While my gear was limited, and my photos didn’t turn out great, this was an important learning experience for me. After this trip, I wanted to learn how to tell a story with my images and how to recreate what my eye sees, in a beautiful photo. Unfortunately, the photos from that disposable camera are lost to time. But hopefully I can pass on to you some of the lessons I have learned about landscape photography since that experience at Havasu Falls over a decade ago.
Planning for Landscape Photography
When it comes to landscape photography, there needs to be some planning that goes into location and gear selection. If you are traveling specifically to capture photos of a specific location, take some time to learn everything you can about the location. You may stumble across some beautiful views by chance, like this photo I shot while hiking up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park located in Southern Utah.
However, you’ll maximize your own efforts by checking things like weather forecasts, parking locations, vantage points, sunset or sunrise time, etc. It’s also good to remember that bad weather may not always be a deal-breaker; however, you’ll want to make sure you have your rain proof cover packed for the trip. The menacing clouds of an overcast day can add a level of drama to your images that can really make them standout to the viewer. And that brings us into planning out what gear to pack.
At this point, opinions will vary and specific gear will change based on your needs. I will just mention a couple of items that are great to have on hand, in addition to whatever body and lens combo you feel is best.
Tripods and monopods can be essential to many situations. Taking longer exposure shots is nearly impossible without having some sort of stabilization device. Personally, I really like shooting and traveling with my Dolica Proline tripod since it only weighs about 2.5 lbs and packs into a fairly compact space.
For those with even tighter weight or size restrictions, a Gorillapod can be a great option. Some models even support up to 11 pounds, which can be great when you have a heavier telephoto lens on your camera.
I’ll keep this section brief since there is already a great article about Neutral Density (ND) filters this site. Briefly, ND filters are like putting a pair of sunglasses over your lens. They reduce the amount of light that hits the sensor, allowing you to take longer exposure shots in brighter lighting conditions. ND filters come with a varying amount of light stopping power and are interchangeable depending on your needs. Check out the in-depth article on Why Do You Need a Neutral Density Filter?
Suggestions for Camera Settings
The first tip I have in relation to camera settings for landscape photography is that, in most cases, you’ll want to maximize your depth of field. This is done in an effort to ensure that both the foreground and background of the photo are in focus. Below is an image I shot in a Southern Utah Valley as the sun was just setting behind the mountains. With an aperture of f/13, you can see that both the rock formations in the foreground, as well as the mountains leading down the valley, are all in crisp focus.
This may become more difficult in dimmer lighting conditions as your final images appear too dark. Shooting during a beautiful sunset may require a longer shutter speed as the natural lighting fades away. Again, this is where camera stabilization is going to come in handy.
When traveling, I also like to keep both a wider angle lens and a telephoto lens on hand. I find that there are some situations when I am looking through my photos after a shoot, and realize that I should have used a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle lens. Below is an example of a photo in Muir Woods National Monument in Mill Valley, California. Looking back at this shot, the image looks too cluttered; there is too much going on and no real focal point for the viewer to look at.
Suggestions for What to Capture
Any location can be a beautiful location if you know what to capture. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rule of Thirds, but remember that you don’t always have to stay within those guidelines. Photos that diverge from these rules can add an extra layer of intrigue for the eye. An example of that can be seen below in another photo of from Southern Utah.
Next, it’s important to give the image a focal point to avoid my Muir Woods photo mistake of capturing busy images in which the eye just doesn’t know what to do. In the following image you can see how the eye is naturally drawn up the line of trees on the ridge, to the top of the mountain. From there your eye wanders down the face of the cliff, or through the clouds. But the focus of that image is still the leading line of tree covering the ridge.
Finally, as you can see in a couple of my images above, black and white processing can really enhance the overall feel and impact of a photo. In some cases it can help reduce the feeling of a cluttered shot as well. Selective use of black and white processing can be a great tool to keep in mind when you get back from your shoot.
Next time I make the trip out to Arizona to hike down to Havasu Falls, I will have with me my new knowledge of landscape photography. Will that insight in hand, I will finally be able to share with the world the true beauty of nature. And now you too will be able to capture stunning landscape shots as well.