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Landscape Photography

Landscapes are by far one of the most studied subjects for the amateur photographer and they present many unique challenges not encountered when capturing other subjects. The key to a successful landscape photograph is image composition; often you can spend hours tinkering with the more technical aspects of your camera but a landscape will often be changing constantly so there are two common approaches to successfully photographing a landscape. On one hand you can simply take a photograph of whatever catches your eye as soon as you see it with as little fuss as possible. On the other hand you can spend many days (or even weeks) researching the one spot to capture something spectacular, and bide your time waiting for exactly the right combination of weather, light and atmospheric conditions. Both techniques will produce stunning images at more or less the same frequency, however whilst the first technique has the benefit of being more dynamic and allowing greater flexibility in your choice of shots the second can guarantee a stunning photograph as reward for your diligence and hard work.

The first thing to consider is how 'balanced' the scene is that you are about to photograph. Most often landscapes will consist of a combination of earth, sky, and sometimes water. It is important to ensure a good balance exists between the various elements, this does not necessarily mean a definite 50/50 split but the proportions should be varied until the scene begins to look balanced in the viewfinder. When balancing an image it is important to take lightning conditions and the weather into account, the colour of the sky and the position of any shadows on the ground will greatly affect the balance of the image. Whilst there are certain things to be considered it is always important to take the photograph when things appear balanced to you rather than what a certain book or piece of literature says. Fortunately with digital storage being so cheap you can vary the proportions of the pictures elements and take multiple images to review later. There are no hard and fast rules with regards to image balance in landscape photography, on a cloudy day the sky may appear to be far more overpowering so a smaller area of sky should be used when composing your image, alternatively a brighter sunny day with clear blue skies could either lighten or darken the ground through shadow. It is up to you to decide what aspects you wish to record of the landscape around you and if you review your images later and decide your balancing was not as good as you had hoped you can always crop the image in a piece of photographic manipulation or graphic design software.


 

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These two images demonstrate how different proportions of land, sky, (and sea) can be used to compose a picture.


It is important to never use the flash in landscape photography; to do so will simply saturate any features you have displayed in the foreground of your image with light and the landscape will simply vanish into blackness. A tripod however is worthwhile using, the distances that most images of landscapes are taken over will benefit from the added stability. If possible a remote shutter activation can also be used, or if your camera has a timer function that can also be utilised to great effect. For panoramic photographs a panoramic mode is not essential, most good image editing or photo manipulation software have an “auto-stitch” mode which will scan through a selection of images and attempt to merge them together into a panorama. One important thing to note when attempting to photograph a panoramic scene with a view to stitching the images together in post processing is that it is imperative that manual settings are used on your camera that will work with every individual photograph you are going to take for the panorama. If you use any form of auto mode each shot will be differently exposed and will not stitch together correctly. For a single shot (with certain exceptions discussed later in this discourse) you can get away with producing images of a high quality with auto mode, however it will ruin any chance you had of stitching your images together into a panorama if this is your intention.

There are times when setting up your camera manually would be beneficial and produce a higher quality image. For instance when photographing a river or fast flowing water you may find it beneficial to decrease the shutter speed to produce motion blur on the water while allowing the surrounding scenery to remain in focus. Alternatively a very short shutter speed can be used to catch the movement of the water in perfect detail; it is up to you to decide exactly what effect you require when composing your image. One universal truth in almost all forms of landscape photography is that the image will benefit from an increased depth of field, to achieve this it is important to decrease the aperture size. (Many cameras will do this of their own accord in auto mode when presented with a distant scene). This will allow for more clearer focus of the entire scene however you may find you have to increase the ISO or shutter speed to compensate for the decreased amount of light hitting the sensor. If you are familiar with the workings of your camera and are able to comprehend the effects these various settings have on an image you will find you are able to produce far more consistently successful images of landscapes rather than shooting in auto mode all of the time.


 

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The top image demonstrates how a decreased aperture size darkens the image yet allows maximum focused area. The bottom image demonstrates how manual settings and a quick shutter speed can capture very quick movements, in this case that of water hitting a rocky outcrop.


One important and often neglected aspect to consider when composing your photograph of a landscape is that of the foreground. Simply because the main 'subject' of your image is in the distance does not mean that the foreground can be neglected. There are various techniques in landscape photography that make use of the foreground, all serve to actually draw our attention to the background and the scenery. Adding an object in the foreground but off centre (usually tucked away to one side of the image, a tree or people for example) will serve to contrast with the distant scene and bring it into perspective, this technique is particularly useful when photographing landscapes that are so huge in scale that their sheer size cannot be communicated via a photograph without putting it into some form of context. Anything that contains a straight line that leads towards the focal point of your image such as a road, fence, or even a linear rock formation or other natural occurrence serves to draw our eye to the landscape, and they also give a picture depth and scale. An alternative to an off centre object in the foreground could be to include objects in the foreground (a tree canopy for example) at the bottom of your shot, this will again lead the eye upwards to focus on the landscape in the background of your image. Once again it is important that you experiment, one of the joys of landscape photography is that the landscapes we try to photograph are constantly in a state of flux and it is up to you to adapt techniques to capture this entropy.



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The top image demonstrates framing a spectacular sky with a rather weatherbeaten tree and fence in the foreground. The bottom image uses a washed up tree stump in the foreground to draw your eye into the distance.


There is a stereotypical perception of how a piece of landscape photography should look, that is neatly framed with some feature of interest such as a mountain used as the focal point. In my experience the best landscape photographs are taken when attempting to distance oneself from this idea and experimenting with new ideas that make your photograph more interesting to look at. Perspective is something that any photographer can and should experiment with as much as possible when taking photographs. Varying the cameras perspective can breathe new life into a previously unremarkable scene and offer a different view of a landscape. The simplest way to vary the perspective is simply to raise or lower the camera when composing your shot. By lowering the camera not only are you beginning to include objects very close to the camera lens as foreground detail but you are drawing the eye towards the landscape that you have photographed. In fact lowering the camera almost to the ground can offer new views on landscapes and bring some interesting detail into a shot that is not normally photographed. Alternatively raising the camera higher than usual can also result in some interesting shifts in perspective. The reason a different perspective makes pictures so interesting is because we are defamiliarising the familiar; human beings have a more or less fixed perspective on the world so presenting us with a viewpoint with are not accustomed to adds to the subject matter of the photograph by making it more exciting to look at.

When photographing a landscape lightning is incredibly important to the quality of the photographs you take, but not in a way that many would think. Again there is a perception that landscape photography is all about suitable lightning, photographing things when the sun is in a certain piece of the sky and the available light is at a maximum but this is honestly not so with digital SLR photography. Lightning is important but it does not control your shots, it simply alters them to present a different view of the landscape before you. The contrast provided by patchy lighting can often be far more interesting to photograph than an evenly lit scene and can affect the mood of the image you are trying to capture. Grey, dark skies need not mean you can't photograph the landscape, in fact some landscapes look far more interesting with a darker cloudy sky to balance them out. Many photographers will comment that the best time to photograph landscapes is during dawn and dusk hours when the light is weaker than some would assume is needed for successful photography. There is some truth in this as throughout sunrise and sunset the light varies greatly in colour depending on atmospheric conditions, and due to the suns low angle in the sky scenes often have a large variety of interesting shadows that provide excellent contrast with the fully lit areas. One small piece of landscape will often photograph in hundreds of completely different ways depending on the time of day, weather and atmospheric conditions.


 

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The photograph on top demonstrates a contrast between the green moorland in the foreground, the white snowy mountains as the focal point (featuring their own areas of light and dark due to the interesting shadows) and the grey sky behind. The bottom photograph shows how a deliberate contrast between light and dark (in this case glistening water flowing under a shadowed stone bridge) can be compsed to make an interesting image.


Many photographers apply varying degrees of post-processing on their images before they consider the image to be “complete”. Modern image editing and photographic manipulation software is a powerful tool in the landscape photographers arsenal and can transform an average image into something truly stunning to view. It is up to you whether you choose to amend your photographs after they have been taken, some consider a photograph a means of capturing a moment in time and editing an image after it has been snapped is obviously contrary to this belief. You can use software to simply improve certain aspects of your image such as the sharpness and crop out any unwanted additions that may have been invisible in the viewfinder (telephone wires anyone?!) or you can totally transform the character of an image. Post processing is useful for fixing flaws that you only notice when viewing the full size image on your computer weeks after leaving the area in your photographs. If a certain colour is over exposed it is easy to reduce the amount of saturation of the colour so it looks more natural, along with amending the brightness, contrast and sharpness of the image. Some images (such as those taken during the day at noon when the sun is bright and scenes are evenly lit) benefit from a contrast adjustment to bring out the darkness of the shadows to provide some contrast with the uniform brightness of the scene, this type of picture also benefits from being converted to black and white as it highlights the contrast between the light and dark areas of the scene. Not every picture requires post processing, however it is up to you to decide whether it is both something you require and something you agree with. I personally consider a good image editing package a must have purchase for a photographer if only to 'normalise' images and clean them up when flaws are discovered that were not apparent when checking the image in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

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