Mobile camera technology continues to grow rapidly giving everyone the opportunity to capture pictures. So what’s the big deal about landscape photography? Is it just another snapshot? Read this article if you want to understand the guidelines used by every landscape photographer.
So what makes a photo a great landscape picture? There’s no one single answer to this as camera kit, lens quality, skill and knowledge all play a major part but I think one of the fundamental corner stones to successful landscape photography is composition. In this article I just want to summarize some of the key rules behind composition. These guidelines are invaluable for the novice and the professional.
Chase The Light
The most dramatic light occurs at sunrise and sunset - this is known as the golden hour as the color is warm and this helps reveal the tones and textures due to the low angle. If there are clouds in the sky then these can add even more interest. For this reason you should always shoot in RAW format for landscape photography as this maintains the shadow and highlight details much more than a jpeg. If like me you have a very busy family life then getting up at the crack of dawn is challenging. What I have done instead is to shoot a dramatic sky and use this to draw in the viewer's attention. For example, this could be sun rays bursting through clouds after heavy rain which you tend to find near mountains like the Mournes.
Keep The Story Small
Your landscape should tell a story. This could be a panoramic focusing on a wide angle with stunning cloud formations and interesting light. Or it could be a shot with a foreground element very close. The key thing is that your picture needs to tell a story and the story needs to be kept small so that there are not too many elements that distract the eye. Having a wide angle lens is useful but it is certainly not a requirement. One of the disadvantages of mirrorless cameras is that the cropped sensor reduces the field of vision i.e. a 14mm lens on a mirrorless camera is near a 28mm lens on a full frame. Post-processing software such as Photoshop can help solve this problem. Just take multiple photographs at the same exposure level and use post-processing software such as Photoshop to stitch the images together. It is vital that care is taken with the overlap and for this reason a tripod should be used otherwise you risk ghosting where partial pixels from the different layers are visible.
The filters that I always use are a polarizer and neutral density filter. The polarizer saturates a blue sky and removes glare. The neutral density allows me to smooth the surface of water to create a more dreamy look. These days I tend not to use a graduated filter and instead shoot a number of exposure bracketed shots. Most of the time you can pick an image from the bracketed set that has the best exposure but if you find details in the shadows or highlights are being lost then you can use masks in Photoshop to blend in multiple images to form a single image. Using Photoshop is beyond the scope of this article but it's worth learning the basics.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds should be considered a guideline but it is an important one. For the majority of photographic situations, it will help you compose a better picture. Generally, for landscape photography getting the main subject out of the centre of the picture provides a better image (most of the time). Basically just think of your image divided into 9 squares. The Rule Of Thirds suggests that you should have your main object of focus on a cross-section on first or last column of squares. The horizon can also be located on one of the lines with either a greater focus placed on the sky or on the foreground detail. It's not hard but it can make a difference. In the image above I have broken this rule as I intentionally wanted the railings to converge to the tower.
Leading lines bring the viewer to the primary focal point. They can be zig zag, bending, or diagonal, but should relate to the context of the overall image. This could even be a texture or a rock formation, a winding river or path. Basically it's any line that you can see in the picture but the key is to use those lines to draw the viewer's attention. In the above image I use the railings to draw in the viewer's attention to the tower.
Adding a natural frame around your photograph can also draw the attention of the viewer particularly if there are no candidates for leading lines. For example, a tree with an over hanging branch. A window that you are looking through. I even saw someone shooting a street scene through a bin to get a frame.
Depth Of Field
For landscape photography I like to have the background sharp and that means using a small aperture. If you read a book on this topic the suggested setting is F22 but for mirrorless cameras an aperture between F8 and F11 tends to work best. A higher aperture risks losing sharpness and is known as diffraction. To be honest sometimes I still take the chance if I need to get a longer shutter time but always review your photo afterwards to make sure you're happy with the sharpness.
Don’t forget these are just guidelines and guidelines are there to be broken. Don't worry if you don't get it right, most of us don't but that's why photography is so frustrating as well as addictive. Enjoy yourself!