This is the final part of my basic guide to landscape photography for beginners and talks about the best times of the day to shoot to get the best lighting. After all, photography is all about light. To be absolutely honest, there are images to be made at any time of the day, but there are certain times which may be more effective and do give you different lighting options.
The golden hour – This is the period just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and produces a softer, more golden light. This is a particularly popular time for landscape and seascape photography, not just because of the colours but also the shadows that can be created.
The magic hour—Some people refer to the golden hour as the magic hour but I prefer to think of it as the time when the sun is just below the horizon about to peek up at dawn or the sun has just gone below the horizon at dusk. At this time you won’t get the strong glow of the sun but what you will get is a beautiful soft light and colours that helps to capture some beautiful images.
The blue hour—this is when the sun is still a little further below the horizon at dawn and just gone a little further down below the horizon at dusk. In the right circumstances this will produce a beautiful deep blue sky and the beginnings of light starting or ending below the horizon.
Most landscape photographers will agree that these are the best times to capture landscapes, but, whilst the sun will be high in the sky in the middle of the day, causing a more flat light and less shadows, you can still create some interesting images, especially in black & white.
You can of course still create stunning landscape images long after the sun has gone down or before it comes up.
As with the camera settings, I could write (and maybe will in the future) a whole guide on composition techniques. If you’re unsure what I mean, composition is all about where you place objects and patterns within the frame when you are photographing them. There are a few important compositional rules that you should know, but later on when you get more experience, you will also get to learn when to break these rules. I won’t go into that here in this beginners guide, I will briefly discuss just two of the rules, which should be enough to get you started in landscape photography. The first one is the rule of thirds. If you imagine your frame divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically you get a kind of grid on the screen. See below:
Now if you were photographing a landscape your aim would be to put the horizon on one of the horizontal lines and your main point of interest somewhere around one of the points where the lines intersect. This should make for a stronger image as these are the areas that your eyes naturally travel to.
The second rule is one of leading lines (or lead in lines). The idea here is to have lines within your images that pull your eyes toward a subject or around the frame. Although not a great image, this is an example where the pathway is a leading line up to the tree. This technique encourages the viewers eyes to see the whole image and brings him or her to the subject.
Here is another example where the tree line and the reflection and the clouds all lead into the frame toward the bright sun.
A whole guide could probably be written about camera settings alone for landscape photography, but I want to keep this post reasonably straightforward. So I will first mention the exposure triangle.
The main settings on you camera that you need to pay attention to for any type of photography are ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. The exposure triangle explains the relationship between these.
In order to correctly expose an image your camera will balance these three elements. A change in the ISO might affect the Aperture and/or the shutter speed, as might a change in Shutter speed affect the other two. Luckily most cameras have modes that help take the strain out of this. Even in fully manual mode you can set the camera to auto ISO.
My advice for any landscape beginner would be to put your camera on Aperture Priority mode and set the ISO manually yourself to no higher than around 400. Generally, the lower your ISO the less digital noise will be introduced into your image, although the higher end cameras tend to cope with this a lot better.
So with your ISO somewhere between 100—400, in aperture priority mode, the only other decision you need to make is what aperture you want to use. This will determine how much of your image is in focus. The smaller the aperture (higher f number) the more of your image around your focal point will be in focus. So if you want both the foreground and distance in your scene to be in focus you would be looking at Camera Settings somewhere around f11 to f16. I have found that going any higher (f number) than this doesn’t make a lot of difference. Your camera will then very cleverly calculate what it thinks the shutter speed should be to give you a balnaced exposure.
It is important to note that the smaller the aperture (higher f number), the less light is let onto the sensor and so the shutter speed needs to be slower to compensate. If the shutter speed needs to be too slow then this is where you may need to use a tripod and remote shutter release as mentioned in a previous blog post.
This should be enough to get you started. If you want to progress to using manual mode, which you will need should you start using filters, etc. then you can still set the ISO yourself to between 100-400, then set both the aperture and shutter speed as necessary to balance the exposure.
It takes practice and a bit of knowledge but you can utilise your own skill to balance these in order to create the desired effect. Good luck and happy shooting!
There are many lens manufacturers out there and to a large extent the lens you choose will be dependent on what fits onto your camera. Each camera manufacturer, and sometimes model, will have a different lens fitting, so make sure whatever lens you buy will fit your camera. (Although you can buy adaptors). Most landscape photographers will use wide or super wide angle lenses most of the time as this will give you the angle to capture a sweeping panorama. Though on occasion you may want to focus right in on a small section of the landscape and in those instances you may want a longer telephoto. So, I will tell you what lenses I take out with me to cover the focal ranges.
My first lens is a 16-35mm super wide angle. This allows me to capture the widest possible scene in front of me.
My next lens is the more versatile 24-105mm, which is a standard focal length. This lens I don’t use so much for landscapes but it gives me an inbetween option.
My final lens, to complete my set of three is the 70-200mm telephoto which allows me to zoom in on intimate parts of a landscape.
So you can see, I have focal lengths covered from 16mm right up to 200mm. For the most part I will stay at the wider end but it’s good to have the flexibility.
One final lens that I have recently acquired and looking forward to trying out is a 15mm fish-eye lens. This is a prime lens, in that the focal length is set and cannot be moved and a fish-eye so it can give me that interesting, warped fish-eye perspective. I can’t wait to get it out into the field.
When choosing lenses for yourself something to consider is the maximum aperture of the lens. I talk more about apertures later on in this guide. The more expensive (bigger and heavier) lenses have a maximum aperture of f2.8 and this is great if you are a wildlife photographer or sports photographer trying to capture fast images in lower light levels, but as a landscape photographer you will most likeley be shooting at smaller apertures, around somewhere between f8—f16, so you can decide for yourself whether these faster lenses are for you. Again, much of your choice will depend on budget.
Other Equipment Other equipment you want to use for landscape photography will vary depending on what you want to capture. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t go out with just a working camera and lens and capture some amazing images. The image below was taken handheld, in the middle of a snowy winters day, with just camera and wide lens.
But, if you really want to delve into landscape photography and experiment with the likes of astrophotography, long exposures or low light photography then there are a few bits of equipment that might help. First of all, a tripod. A good sturdy, light-weight travel tripod to help keep the camera still is especially useful when photographing early in the morning or later in the day when the light is fading. In order to get correct exposures you will need to slow down the shutter speed so handheld won’t always be an option. It will also allow you to purposely slow the shutter speed down in order to capture that milky water look when photographing waterfalls, rivers or seascapes.
The image above was taken at one of my favourite spots, Daymer Bay in Cornwall, at around 9pm so the light was fading and I wanted to capture the smooth water and cloud effect. This wouldn’t have been possible without a tripod. One other quick tip for using tripods on sand, take 3 old compact discs and put them under the feet to stop them sinking into the sand. Being able to capture the smooth, milky water and cloud effect becomes trickier earlier in the day when there is a lot of light and so to get this effect my next suggested piece of equipment is filters. I use Lee filters and have a big stopper (10 stops) and little stopper (6 stops) which basically cut out that many stops of light to allow you to slow the shutter speed down sufficiently. The shot below was taken at about 10am so there was a lot of light round but with the use of a 6 stop filter I was able to slow the shutter to give me the milky effect in the water.
Other filters that may come in handy are the polarising filter which can help reduce reflections in water and make your colours pop a bit more and graduated filters which are darker on one end so you can use them to darken a bright sky and balance the exposure of the whole image. The graduated filters usually come in a soft, medium or hard graduation, meaning the change from light to dark is more or less graduated. You also have the option of square filters that fit into a holder that attaches to the front of your lens, or screw on filters that attach to the lens directly. You will need to experiment with these yourself to decide what you like. The last piece of equipment I will talk about here is a shutter release cable or remote control. When you are set up on a tripod for a long exposure shot it is better then not to touch the camera to release the shutter as that can introduce a bit of camera shake. So by attaching a cable release or using a remote control you can release the shutter with no hands on.
It goes without saying that bags, lens wipes, spare batteries, spare SD cards, torches, cloths, etc. will also be useful.
I also use an L Bracket, similar to the one shown below, which allows me to mount my camera on my tripod in either landscape or portrait orientation.
It is true to say that you can capture quality images on just about any camera these days. From a small point and shoot, to your mobile phone, you will be able to capture a decent quality image. However, if you want to really capture the highest quality images you will need to invest in a good quality DSLR or mirrorless camera. When looking at cameras for landscape photography you won’t need to worry about things such as frame rate (the number of frames a camera can capture in a second), like say sports or wildlife photographers would need, and you don’t need to worry too much about the most sophisticated Auto Focus system. What you will need to look for are the number of megapixels. The higher the better, will give you the freedom to print your images as large as possible, as well as a good dynamic range. This is how well the camera copes with highlights and shadows to help cope with high contrast images at dawn and dusk for instance. You might also want to look at weather sealing for your camera body. Today’s consumer cameras offer high quality images, but they will lack some of the build quality of the higher end professional cameras. As a landscape photographer you will naturally be outdoors a lot and you might face some extreme weather so a good quality weather sealed camera body may be high on your wish list. Many landscape photographers also like to use the live view option on the back of the camera to compose and fine tune their shots so you may want to add this to your list of desirable features. One last consideration to make is full frame or cropped sensor. I switched to a full frame from cropped a few years ago and wouldn’t go back. In terms of image quality and dynamic range I don’t think the cropped sensors can compete for image quality. Look out for a future blog post on the difference between full frame and cropped sensors. So what do I use? I use a Canon camera, just because I always have and I know how they operate and don’t want to change now. The model I use is a 5D MkIV. This gives me all of the above considerations including the excellent weather sealing. Another option to the chunky, sometimes heavy DSLR’s are the modern mirrorless cameras. Personally, I am yet to try one out, but I have heard good things about the Sony’s, with the A7R IV being the latest model. Mirrorless cameras tend to be a bit smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts. Whatever camera body you choose will depend largely on your budget but as long as you bear these tips in mind, you shouldn’t go far wrong. My best advice though would be to try them, if you can, and make your own comparison.