Photographing Landscapes

I take two types of pictures, landscapes and closeups.

Landscapes are scenes where the subject of focus is everything in the field of view.

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Torres del Paine, Chile

Closeups isolate a specific element in the field of view in finest detail, while rendering background features pleasingly out of focus.

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Burrowing Owl near Othello, WA, USA

Here we discuss landscapes. My go-to reference for landscape imaging is John Shaw’s 1994 book Landscape Photography. Aside from a wealth of beautiful landscape images, the book’s technical language is still mostly up-to-date in today’s newer and largely non-film world.

Our intuition of landscape is breadth, a wide and grand vista. But a landscape could also comprise an intimate garden scene, or a street scene in a city, or our surroundings wherever we find ourselves with camera. One typically thinks of a wide lens first, but any lens in the kit can be a candidate. Select the lens whose angle of view and distance perspective best reflects your vision for the shot.

Wider allows for a wide scenic vista in a single shot, either as the primary interest, or as a backdrop for a foreground object one can get close to. A wider lens stretches depth perspective. A ‘normal’ lens will take a slice of the total field of view, useful when the scene will benefit from equal background and foreground detail and scale. A tele lens will be useful when the background can benefit from compression of depth and/or there is some mid-foreground object of interest that one wants to feature, but cannot get closer to.

One has the further option to use a normal to tele lens to take several adjacent images, stitching them together into a panorama in post-processing. Panoramas can provide the best experience of actually being there in a wide natural setting.

Unless a distant scene is striking in some particular, such as light, color, or a dominating feature, the image from a wide lens will generally lack interest unless some foreground object or some intermediate linear forms can lead one into the scene and help give a stronger sense of scale and/or more unusual sense of composition. Lacking these, the alternative is an image, of edge-to-edge distant forms with low detail and a strong sense of remoteness from the viewer. Boring!

Although breadth is the usual requirement for landscapes, a sense of depth must be present to bring the image to life. The closer one can get to the important foreground elements of a scene, the more striking the composition and the more strongly one is drawn into the scene. Also, consider getting low to allow the ground to increase in compositional importance.

Another approach for keeping an image out of the boring pile is to frame the scene with the horizon above or below the middle of the image. If the emphasis is the sky, move the horizon down. If the emphasis is the land, move the horizon up. But as the lens’ angle of view gets wider, there is less latitude in moving the horizon away from the middle, due to increasing field curvature at the top and bottom of an image.

Technically, one will get best results shooting in aperture priority mode while focused on the hyperfocal point of a scene. One can generally use the lens’ ‘sweet spot’ for maximum performance. Aperture control allows one to select the aperture giving best depth of field at or near the lens’ ‘sweet spot’. By focusing at the hyperfocal distance rather than infinity, both foreground and background can maintain critical focus.

Landscapes with waterfall, stream,  or wind-blown waves of water or grass will likely benefit from a seriously slow shutter speed (1/2 second or slower). A neutral density filter  will block light, allowing decreasing shutter speed while maintaining a correct exposure. A  6-9 stop filter will enable a shutter speed that creates a sense of motion and flow, altering the mood of the scene entirely.

Depth of field will normally be insufficient when a horizontal subject such as a field of flowers or a table setting exists in a plane at a large angle to the focal plane of the camera, such as happens typically when looking down obliquely on the subject. In such a case, a special purpose tilting lens can be utilized to allow the camera’s focal plane to be more closely aligned with the plane of the subject. The cheapest alternative today is to obtain a view camera and take such pictures on film. If affordable, DSLR tilting lenses are available; Canon offers three newer versions that are pricey, and Nikon offers one newer lens that is very pricey.

Keeping the camera at level gets more important as lens viewing angle increases. Yet for an unusual effect, deliberately tilting a camera with an ultra-wide lens can provide unusual and interesting perspectives.

A circular polarizer may be used to good effect in landscape imaging when natural reflective surfaces such as water and foliage are in the scene. By eliminating direct reflection of sunlight into the lens, the remaining indirect light will increase color saturation of the scene and significantly increase contrast in sky and clouds. This comes at a price though. By reducing incident light, they can require 2-3 stops more exposure to compensate for the missing light.

This light-robbing effect of a polarizer may slow the exposure enough that waterfalls will be more naturally portrayed while maintaining depth of field. Or a polarizer and neutral density filter could be combined.

Care is needed when using polarizers with wide lenses. Shooting at 90 degree angle to the direction of light with a polarizer will create a dark vertical band in the middle of a wide angle scene. Shooting a little into or away from perpendicular of light may still achieve polarizing benefit, while at the same time moving the more contrasty, color-saturated band toward the edge of the image where it will look more natural and be less noticed.

Note that rainbows and sunsets are allergic to polarizers. These scenes require reflected light to generate their colorful displays.

If sky and land are in the final image, the dynamic range required to represent the scene may exceed the sensor capability. If the histogram notes a problem, one can employ a graduated neutral density filter to tame the sky’s contribution to overall exposure (or vice versa for a winter scene).

Flaring can impact an image if the incident light arrives from an inconvenient angle. Either use a lens hood, and/or shield the front lens element from oblique incident light with hand or body. Many photographers choose to toss the lens hoods in a box and never use them. But hoods are useful on normal to wide lenses in landscape imaging. They can also provide a modicum of front element protection for those shooters who disdain UV filters as lens protectors.

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