I find that I achieve better results when I’ve done some research on the area and visualized at least a few of the images I hope to capture. Doing this enables me to be more patient when I’m in the environment. To start, a simple web search for area images provides a lot of information. Also, there are a number of great tools available to help you understand what the light is going to do and when, and which areas of the landscape to focus on. My favorite light tool is The Photographers Ephemeris. This provides details on when and where the sun and moon will rise and set. You can even pinpoint where you want to shoot to catch exactly your vision because you will know precisely when the prime light time to be there will be.
I had in my mind this penguin image, which I captured on South Georgia Island, well before I boarded the plane for South America. Even though I wasn’t sure we would visit a location with thousands of penguins I knew we would be in the neighborhood and I was ready when we arrived.
Landscape photography takes a fair amount of patience. Whether I’m waiting for that first hint of sunlight to bathe a peak in a warm glow or the final light of day to warm up the clouds, I find myself waiting … a lot. I always get to a location with plenty of time to explore and wander around to find the composition I’m seeking. Once I find it, I’ll set up. And then wait. Sometime for an hour or more, sometimes only for a few minutes. Be sure not to leave too early either; often, the best light is after the sun has set.
A couple of buddies and I had been waiting for this Half Dome shot in Yosemite National Park for quite some time. The sky was cloudy, and as the sun sank the light just kept getting worse. We packed up and were walking back to the car. As I was loading gear in, I glanced in the side mirror and saw the sky exploding with color. We scrambled to find a nice place to shoot, and this is the result. As the sun moved below the clouds it reflected light from below. Whew, I’m glad I noticed the mirror!
Light is the critical element in all photography genres. Light is really what we are capturing. Knowing where light is coming from and anticipating what it is going to do will help you capture better photos. Light comes from all directions. Front light, side light, back light are all phrases you may be familiar with, and each impacts images in unique ways. It is also important to be aware of reflected light, as was capture with the Half Dome image, above.
Bishop Creek Canyon outside of Bishop, Calif., is a very narrow canyon. There, some of the best light occurs when the sun is below the canyon reflecting off the sidewalls. For this photo, as the sun was rising but still below the canyon in front of me, the first light was beginning to reflect off the canyon behind me. The nice soft diffused light bathed this stand of aspens as if I were holding a diffuser the size of a house. This is one of my best selling images.
Less is more when you are seeking to take amazing landscape photos. When composing a shot, I’m generally moving around, trying different angles or perspectives, or zooming in trying to remove elements from the scene without being forced to rely on post-processing. Too many objects in the foreground or a distracting background however can be challenging. Opening up my lens to an aperture of f/3.5 or f/2.8 also lets in more light and enables me to blur the background.
In this fall color shot at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra I chose to open up my lens to f/2.8 and blur the background. This focused the viewers attention on the foreground leaves while also showing the magnificent color of the aspens across the lake.
The Power of Fours
I capture four images almost every time I take a photo: wide or zoomed out, tight or zoomed in, horizontal or vertical. I have two reasons for this: First, this gives me a variety of options when editing since often each image has its unique appeal; second, if I’m selling the image to clients or printing it, this enables me to provide a variety of perspectives.
This image of a lenticular or wave cloud captured in the Owens Valley demonstrates how I captured the four different images.
With any type of photography moving yourself is a great tactic to employ and the simplest way to gain different perspectives. Most of the time I move to get closer, but moving back or to the side are also good ideas. Try something from a different angle if you can, too. Climb on a ledge, wall or rock, kneel down or even lay down.
For this image of the mud flats in Death Valley near the dunes at Stovepipe Wells, I set up my tripod with its legs spread as wide as possible and lay on my stomach to capture the image.
A solid tripod is a must for landscape photography since it is just not possible to hold your camera by hand for what you need. Frequently, you are shooting at dawn or dusk in such low light that without a tripod your images would not be utterly sharp. Aside from your camera body and lenses, a tripod is a critical piece of equipment; be sure to invest in good quality. Lightweight carbon fiber is not a must, but I find it much easier to carry on long walks from a vehicle.
This image from the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was captured at dawn well before the sun was up. This is when the Snow Geese leave the safety of the ponds where they roost overnight to go feed all day before coming back each night to roost. Without a tripod, this would have been one big blur.
Post-production and camera software has become quite powerful in recent years. Digital cameras are able to capture a much wider range of light than old slide film. I still believe is it best to capture the best image you can in camera, though, and not rely on post-processing. I use filters to help me do this. My three go-to types of filters are a polarizer, three different densities of neutral density filters, and a split neutral density filter.
A polarizing filter allows me to control light, particularly reflections and glare. I shoot a lot of fly fishing images and using a polarizing filter enabled me to reduce the reflection and almost see in the water on this Colorado Cutthroat image.
Neutral density filters are available in a variety of densities. Using a very dense or dark neutral density filter allowed me to shoot in sunlight while using a very slow shutter speed so I could blur the water in Division Creek while capturing the annual Lupine bloom.
A split neutral filter allows me to control light for sunrise and sunset shots. Capturing a field of wildflowers at dawn as the sunlight hits the peaks would be impossible without a split neutral density filter. This filter is split with one half dark or “filtered,” and the other completely clear. In the shot of an iris field at dawn the irises would have been under-exposed if I had exposed for the peaks, and the peaks would have been over-exposed if I had exposed for the irises. Using a split neutral density filter I could orient the dark side to expose for the peaks and clear side allowed enough light for proper exposure of the irises.
I shoot most of my landscape images with one of three zoom lenses: I’ve been a Nikon shooter for a long time, but I have also started using a Sony mirrorless DSLR and know my way around other cameras including smartphones. With the Nikon, I primarily use a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and sometimes a 70-200mm f/2.8. Shooting with lenses that have focal lengths of f/2.8 give me the option of shooting in low light, plus a variety of creative options for shallow depths of field. I love these three lenses as they enable me to capture images in almost any situation. I realize everyone does not have the budget for $3,000 lenses, but many of the lenses you get in kits with camera bodies are terrific. I believe it was Chase Jarvis who said, the best camera is the camera you have with you, and I agree. Shoot with what you have and what you can afford, and if your budget allows for upgrades spend your money on lenses.
Enjoy the moment too
Perhaps not a photography tip, I have one thing to add: Don’t forget to have fun! Take a step back, and enjoy the moment with your own eyes, too. The natural environment is an amazing place, and if you’re lucky to be in the right spot at the right time, nature can put on quite a show. And you’ll have a front row seat.