I thought this week I would share a few tips (5 to be precise) to keep in mind next time you are out capturing this wonderful world of ours with your trusty camera. These are probably the main things I think of when I’m ready to take a photograph, and over the years have helped improve my results dramatically.
Tip #1 – Have a Subject.
This is something I’ve really worked on for the last 12 months. To me, landscape photography should be about the landscape, or better put, about something IN the landscape. It might be a rock, it might be a stump, it might be a river, a wonderful tree, but something should be the subject. This is important as it then helps you determine what other elements to include or exclude to help support the subject. If something doesn’t fit, get rid of it. Not always possible, but doing this as much as possible will lead to a photograph with much more impact.
Lets take this photo as an example. The subject is most definitely the beautiful tree at the end of this Winery. So I knew my subject, all other elements are positioned as much as possible help support that subject. The lane ways lead to the subject, the approaching sunrise is back lighting the subject. I couldn’t quite get rid of the trees left and right so minimised them as much as possible by adjusting my perspective. If the tree wasn’t there, this shot just wouldn’t have the impact, and I would have gone looking for something else.
Tip #2 Perspective.
As I’m shooting a lot of low light landscapes, I use a tripod..a lot ? It’s very easy (and I still do it) to fall into the trap of setting up your tripod at head height and shooting away. The issue I have found is that we ALL see everything this way, we all view the world from our normal height. And this is a problem if we want our photographs to stand out, to have more impact, to catch your eye in a sea of other great quality photographs.
One of the easiest things you can do is change your perspective, and of the few choices, getting lower is the easiest. Next time you are out shooting, and have a good subject, try shooting from waist, knee or even the ground height. That small change in perspective can add a lot of impact, the foreground now plays a much more important role, it will drive you visually into the photograph. It can also help remove or reduce a boring middle ground, or remove items in the background, it’s a great tool for helping with composition. The alternate also works very well, get up higher, and as drone photography has shown, extremely high perspectives create a stunning new look to scenes. Just be careful if you go low, focusing, the nearest object to the lens may now be a lot closer, so check photos to see if you still have everything in focus.
Take this photograph for example. I originally started shooting at head height, and worked out I wanted the stump to be my main subject, and the tree in the distance as a supporting element. A couple of shoots and it just didn’t feel right to me. So kicking myself in the butt, and remembering my rules, I dropped my tripod down to waist height, carefully manoeuvred my lens between the barb wire fence I was shooting through and the whole photograph dramatically improved for me, and allowed me to add a bit more of that sky to the scene, win-win!
Tip #3 Learn light.
This is a huge one, and something I am always working on. With out light, there is no photograph, but there are many many different kinds of light and lots of different ways to capture that light. I’ll briefly run through some of my favourite types of light, but read up on it, find any source of info you can, and seriously learn it. Great light makes great photographs. The most common types of light I enjoy are predawn/post sunset light, sidelight when the sun is up and low to the horizon, and my favourite but so hard to find, diffused light from fog, just LOVE that light, crazy light, when gaps in weather/storms while the sun is low can cause some really weird and visually stunning light.
A tip within a tip, once you start to really understand light, start looking at a lot of photographs. I use Flickr and Google+ a lot for this. Do a simple search on landscapes, and when a photograph captures your eye, start to study it, really try to work out what type of light was present, what direction it was coming from, is it direct or reflected, and this visual practice will have great benefits. It will help you recognise light out in the field, it will also help you predict what conditions need to exist for that type of light to occur, which helps with planning. It will also teach you what type of light YOU like and you will start to pursue that light…and you never know, start to develop your own style.
This photograph is an example to me of crazy light. Close to sunset, so the colour was amazing, a gap in the rain/storm allowed it to break through. Give you an idea of the weather involved, none of that water had existed 3 hours earlier! The light falling is very much like predawn light, soft with lovely gradations, but a crazy sky and it’s throwing that colour everywhere. Hence I call it crazy light ?
Tip #4 Shoot for post processing.
Say what? Yep…completely ignore what the photograph looks like on the back of your camera. Now to do this, you must shoot in Raw, as you need to capture as much information in the file as possible, and have as much flexibility to adjust that information as possible.
There are only a few things I look at on my camera once I have my composition sorted. The first is the level, making sure my horizon is straight in camera means less cropping and lost pixels later on. From there it’s all about the histogram, and highlights/shadows warnings. Every camera behaves differently, and I know from usage my camera (Olympus OMD EM5 Mark 2) doesn’t recover highlights well. If the highlight warning says it’s blown out..it’s gone, no recovering that. Shadows are more recoverable but can get noise in them if they have to be adjusted a lot.
So basically, when I’m shooting, I shoot primarily in Aperture priority mode (or manual sometimes) and using the exposure compensation adjustment, moving the exposure left and right on the histogram, watching the warnings, and making sure nothing in the highlights gets clipped. That’s my photo done. This is called Exposing to the Right or ETTR, there are plenty of youtube vids and pages out there going into this in fine detail but the general gist is the more data you have in the brighter areas, the less noise you will have, but don’t blow the highlights.
Now if shadows are too dark still, then you need to work around the problem. The two main ways are to use filters, to darken the bright bits and bring them closer to the shadows, then adjust exposure to the right again (ND Graduated filters) or take multiple exposures and blend them in post using High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques. I occasionally use both when a scene needs it, but less and less these days as cameras get better and better. Or just let the shadows go dark into silhouette for a dramatic image with great contrast, it’s a creative choice.
So what does all this mean? Basically I now have a Raw file, with the best information of the scene I captured as possible, and will then polish it in post production to make it look they way I remembered / wanted it (because the Raw will look UGLY!). Polishing is usually all about colour correction/adjustment, removing any dust spots, straightening the image if I did get it wrong, adjusting contrast in varies parts of the image and sharpening.
Tip #5. Be there at the right time.
Going back to the subject of light, you need to really be on location, and setup, at least an hour before sunrise until the light is harsh which could be 1-2 hours after sunrise, and an hour before sunset stay for at least an hour after sunset. Amazing light can happen anytime within 2-3 hours of that time. I shoot dawn a lot due to family commitments, and to be honest, I love that time of day, so calm, a lot less wind etc. Say sunrise is 6am. I’ll be at my location by 5am at the latest, and if I have a bit of a drive I could potentially be leaving home at 4am. It takes some dedication, lots of coffee, and motivation to get there at that time. I may have to then wait for 2-3 hours for the light to happen, and it may not happen at all. That’s landscape photography for you, but if you are not there at the times that offer the best chance to get the right light, you never will.
Take this photograph at my good friends place (heya Craig!). He had contacted me about wanting a photo of the swan nesting in one of the dams. I arrived in the dark, he showed me the spot, I mooched around looking for the right composition took a few different shots, I finally settled on this and just waited. Craig had wandered off working and when he got back, I still remember it, the sun came up, the sky just absolutely lit up, and all I had to do was capture the photograph. Then 2 minutes later, the light in the sky was gone. It still threw out some great colour, but the angle wasn’t just right to hit the clouds the way this one did.
So there you have 5 random tips for landscape photography.
If you find yourself struggling, as we all do, if you are wondering what might have helped improve an image, then I hope I’ve been able to help you here.