Dramatic Landscape Photography Tips

Time of Day: If you hang around with photographers long enough, you will inevitably hear the phrase “the magic hour”. This is time when most great landscape photos are made. Begin by bookmarking a local website which provides accurate times for civil twilight, sunrise, and sunset. Here is one that I use, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php. If you are not a morning person, you are not out of luck, as these beautiful conditions happen at both sunrise and sunset. During these times, the low angle of the sun produces soft, warm tones that are pleasing to the eye. In addition, the magic hour can have a desirable effect on the amount of color saturation in your image. While it is still OK to photograph during the day, try to avoid shooting landscapes when the sun is highest in the sky around mid day. This will normally cause harsh shadows and contrast which is not favorable for photographers seeking to create dramatic images. Another benefit of the magic hour is that most birds and animals are quite active before bedding down for the day.

Weather: Rainbows, lightning, ominous clouds, fog, and snow can all add considerable impact to your landscapes. Yet, to capture these natural phenomena’s, a photographer must seek out weather patterns that are less than ideal. By making yourself aware of the upcoming conditions, you can begin to plan and visualize your photos in advance. Perhaps your favorite lighthouse would look even better with freshly fallen snow and an overcast sky. Maybe that old grave yard will take on a more pensive feel in a thick morning fog. Here in New York City, people’s reactions to rain can create interesting photographic opportunities. Regardless of where you live, it’s important to consider the moods that various weather conditions can bring to a scene. Once you begin to work with the natural elements, the possibilities are endless. There’s an old saying, “The worse the weather, the better the picture”. Try it out for yourself, just remember to be safe, and dress appropriately.

Filters: Two words, Neutral Density. It surpasses the polarizer as the most useful filter landscape photographers can keep in their bag. These great little tools come in many shapes, strengths, and sizes. Generally, a soft edge 2 stop neutral density filter is a good place to start. It works by reducing the difference in brightness between the foreground and the sky. This allows your digital sensor to capture the detail in both areas. For example, if you meter the foreground and expose it as 18% grey, the bright sky may be overexposed by 2 stops. A 2 stop ND filter would correct this by changing the overexposed sky to an 18% grey meter reading. To pick up an ND filter, check out www.2filter.com. While ND filters are a necessity for any serious landscape artist, be cautious when considering the purchase of a UV filter. Generally these filters don’t provide much impact, and can in fact reduce the ultimate image quality. Some photographers use them as a protective measure. Yet, for landscapes, they are normally not necessary. A circular polarizer however, is a very handy tool for increasing saturation, and eliminating reflections on water and other surfaces. By rotating the filter while looking through the viewfinder, you can actually see the change a polarizer has on the scene. The effectiveness of the polarization is dependent upon the angle of the sun in relation to your lens. For this reason, polarizing filters should not be left on the lens at all times. Also, be aware that using a polarizing filter reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor by 1.5 to 2 stops.

Camera features: Many of today’s DSLR’S have a feature called “Mirror Lock Up”. It is great tool to help you make sure your images are tack sharp. It works by locking the SLR mirror in the up position, and allowing the vibrations to stop before the shutter is fired. By using mirror lock up, along with a sturdy tripod, your enlargements will be sharp, and ready for hanging on a gallery wall. Another useful feature of newer DSLR’S is a “Noise Reduction Mode” which reduces the digital noise typically found in long exposures and low light conditions. However, noise reduction can be applied with more control in the digital darkroom, often with superior results. Popular software like Neat Image, Noise Ninja, and Noiseware usually offer free trial periods. Before purchasing one, give it a test run to see what works best for you. One commonly overlooked feature that can’t be duplicated in the darkroom is the “Depth of Field Preview”. This useful button allows you to actually see what will be sharp, and what will blur prior to taking the image. For landscape photographers, this is an invaluable tool to help create an image of a scene as you want it to appear. Does F8 render the entire scene as relatively sharp, or should you try F11 or F16? The Depth of Field preview can help answer these questions while you are out in the field. The spot meter is also a powerful tool for fine tuning your exposure. To use it, start by putting your camera into the manual mode. Next, change your metering mode to spot metering. If your camera doesn’t have a spot metering mode, use the partial meter mode. Now, if you want to make the sand on the beach look black, take a meter reading of the sand, and adjust your exposure to read as -2 or less. Likewise, if you want to show the snow as truly white, take a meter reading off the snow and adjust your exposure to read as +1.5 or +2. This is accomplished by changing the f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, or a combination of all three. With digital cameras, it’s often best to make a reading of the brightest part of the image as digital sensors are more sensitive to highlights than film was. It takes some experimenting to get the hang of this system. Thankfully your digital camera will provide instant results, and you can make adjustments as you go. If possible, take a look photographer John Shaw’s book, “Nature Photography Field Guide”. This wonderful text provides detailed instructions on applying this method of exposure to color photography, and is a must read for all nature photographers.

Composition: Ansel Adams said “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” This is important to remember when considering your composition. Sure the “Rule of Thirds” is a helpful guide for composition, but it’s not meant to be the only way to photograph a scene. The key is to explore all the possibilities. Before putting the camera on the tripod, bring it to your eye, and walk around to “compose with your feet”. Does the horizon line look better at the bottom or the top of the frame? How about the middle? Also, consider what you would like to include in the foreground. Does the overall mood of the photo change from various vantage points? When you are surrounded by natural beauty, it’s tempting to include everything you see in the photo. Try to avoid falling into this common trap. Determine what is most important in the landscape, and work to emphasize it by leaving out unnecessary elements. For example, if you have a field of wildflowers and a plain blue sky, you may opt to put your horizon line in the upper third of the frame. Not only will this emphasize the flowers, but it will de-emphasize the sky. Get down as far as you can and explore the perspective from ground level. Only after you find a composition that you like should the tripod be introduced. By searching this way, you are creating a different interpretation of the scene, and giving it your own artistic touch. Instead of just taking the photo, your goal is to make the photo.

Post Processing: There is an ongoing debate amongst many photographers. What’s the preferred file type, RAW, DNG, TIFF, or JPEG? If you break the process down into 4 areas, each one of these files has a valid, useful purpose.
Capture Mode: For landscape photography RAW is the ideal capture format as it gives the photographer more control over the image in the digital darkroom. By simply changing the white balance you can make an immediate impact on the overall look of the photo. For instance, by choosing a white balance setting of cloudy, or shady, your photo will take on a warmer tone.
For Archival Purposes: The DNG format was recently created by Adobe in an effort to unify the various RAW formats created by different camera manufactures. If your software has the ability to save a file as a DNG, it is worthy of consideration. Yet, at this point in time, both RAW and DNG are acceptable archival methods for your digital negatives.

For Making Prints: By saving your completed image as a TIFF, you are using a lossless file which is capable of producing high quality enlargements.

For Email and Web Posting: A JPEG saved at 72 DPI is compressed and allows for quick web viewing, and email transmission.

Workflow: If you asked 100 photographers about the intricate specifics of their workflow, you would likely get 100 different answers. Yet, there are some basic steps that are typical when working with landscapes. Here is a 10 point checklist:

1) Apply the most appropriate white balance setting to your RAW file.
2) Convert the RAW file into a TIFF
3) Adjust the curves
4) Apply burning and dodging (as needed) Use the healing brush or cloning tool to remove any dust spots (if needed)
6) Add a small amount of saturation (too much looks unnatural)
7) Crop and resize the image to the desired print size, and set at 300 dpi.
8) Apply sharpening while viewing at 100% or “Actual Pixels”.
9) Add metadata into the “File Info” Example: “Copyright Year, & Your Name”
10) Choose “SAVE AS”, rename the file, and select TIFF.

Final Thoughts:
Through the efforts of the determined landscape photographers that came before us, an enormous amount of land has been conserved for future generations to enjoy. However, there is still work to be done, and your photographs can help to make the difference. There are countless photography books, DVD’s, and websites which can provide inspiration to those who wish to find it. Yet, the easiest way to begin is to get outdoors with your camera often. Why not start right now. After all, it’s been said that the longest journey begins with a single step. I’ll see you out on the trail!