5 tips for stepping up your landscape photography (Part one)
This is the first part of a two part series on photographing landscapes by photographer Dylan Giannakopoulos. Look out for part two next week.
Photographing a landscape well is not as simple as just turning up at a location, setting your camera on a tripod and waiting for nature to work its magic. It takes a lot of planning, preparation and an element of luck.
As landscape photographers, we are bound by mother nature and even with months of planning, if the stars don’t align, there is a good chance you could walk away with nothing. It’s the desire to capture something special, even when the odds are stacked against you, that fuel (along with several cups of coffee) those early mornings and late-night shoots.
Let’s dive in deep and discuss some important but not so frequently shared tips for landscape photography so when that amazing sunset happens, you’re ready to go!
Ground Your Composition with Foreground Elements
In landscape photography, foreground elements are a great way to add a sense of depth and balance to a composition. This becomes increasingly important when shooting at ultra-wide focal lengths. If you’re not familiar with the term, foreground
elements are points of interests which are located in the area closest to the camera.
Foreground elements should stand out from the surrounding environment through a difference in texture, tone or colour. It could be a colourful flower, an interesting pattern in a frozen lake or even a reflection in a puddle. Foreground elements are only limited by your imagination.
Foreground elements act like a counterweight, balancing compositions that have an overly dominate background subject. They also provide a point of reference for the viewer’s eye to gauge depth. When approaching my composition, I look for balance and cohesion between my foreground, middle ground and background. I am mindful to spread my points of interest so they don’t all fall into one section (for example, the background).
While the location you’re shooting will largely dictate your middle, and even more so, your background, in most cases you’ll have control over your foreground. So make sure you arrive early and take time to carefully select your foreground elements because they can have a significant impact on your composition.
More Isn’t Always Better
With landscape photography, you typically want a depth of field (DoF) that is wide enough to ensure that everything from your closest foreground element through to your background is acceptably sharp.
This is achieved by decreasing the lens’ aperture to increase DoF, for example, f/5.6 to f/13. If shooting at a lens’ smallest aperture will produce the maximum amount of DoF, then why wouldn’t you always shoot landscapes at the smallest available aperture?
Like most things in photography, there’s often a trade off. Apart from letting less light in, decreasing the size of the aperture will increase the effects of diffraction. While I’ll save the scientific explanation for physicists, in photography, diffraction causes a softening of fine detail, resulting in sharpness gradually decreasing as the lens’ aperture is made smaller.
Unfortunately, no matter how expensive, all lenses suffer from diffraction. Therefore, there is a point of diminishing returns. While increasing DoF will result in more of the foreground and background becoming acceptably sharp, at a certain point, it will come at the cost of overall image sharpness.
The key is to select an aperture that will provide you with just enough DoF rather than shooting with an unnecessarily small aperture.
Look Out for Leading Lines
Leading lines are a powerful compositional technique in landscape photography. By taking advantage of the eye’s tendency to follow lines, you can use leading lines to guide the viewer through your composition and to your focal point. Leading lines are also considered foreground elements, and as such can be used to convey a sense of depth and dimension.
Leading lines come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be curved, straight, diagonal or converging and are found in both natural and man-made elements.
They may not be literal lines, but rather objects that provide direction. It could be a pier leading out to sea, the curvature of a beachfront or light trails created by cars at dusk. Their form may change but they capture the viewers’ attention and provide a sense of dimension.
Arrive Early and Stay Put!
When I started shooting landscapes, I used to constantly change my position to capture my subject from every possible angle. However, this often meant I’d be in the wrong spot if the sky lit up with colour or I’d make simple mistakes under pressure such as underexposing my image, or my horizon wouldn’t be straight.
After one too many missed opportunities, I learnt the value of arriving early, leaving my camera in a fixed position and staying until after the sun has set.
By having time on your side, you can thoroughly scout the location to find your favourite composition. The idea is not to move the camera once it’s mounted onto your tripod and you’ve found your composition.
By doing so, you can “set and forget” settings such as camera mode, aperture and focus, as well as ensuring your horizon line is straight.
Lastly, you never really know if or when the sky is going to light up with colour, so always stay that bit longer than you think you’ll need to.
On countless occasions I’ve seen photographers pack up early, only for the sky to turn a fiery red minutes later.
Don’t Just Shoot Wide
When it comes to lens selection, wide angle lenses are a staple in a landscape photographer’s camera bag. However, you must not fall into the trap of only shooting wide. While I predominately use my full frame Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens, I often swap it out for my 55mm f/1.8 or 70-200mm f/4 lens.
Most photographers and tourists tend to shoot wide by default. Using a standard or telephoto lens can be a great way to
capture a unique perspective of a heavily photographed landscape.
For scenes that have an overwhelming number of subjects, shooting wide to capture them all can cause an image to lack a clear focal point and lead to viewer confusion. By shooting telephoto, you can isolate a single subject, creating cleaner looking compositions.
Shooting at a standard or telephoto focal length versus a wide focal length also reduces the field of view. This can be useful for removing distracting elements from your frame, adding clarity to your composition and reducing your work in post-processing. Using a narrower field of view also creates the appearance of compression.
This is where the background appears bigger relative to your subject in the foreground when compared to shooting with a wider field of view.
About the author: Pro photographer Dylan Giannakopoulos shoots landscapes, wildlife, portraits, street, weddings, and anything else that inspires him See more at dylangiannaphotography.com.au