Seize the day and get out there with your DSLR – from sunrise to sunset and into the dead of night. It’s your 24 hour guide to creative landscape photography…
Digital SLRs are complex beasts, but there’s no reason at all why you can’t get to grips with them – and produce really great shots – in the space of just 1 day. Here we share 24 photography tips that’ll help you do just that. You’ll learn how to exploit the ‘magic hours’ around dawn and dusk, and discover why dragging yourself out of bed before sunrise and staying up late at night can be worth the extra effort. We’ll also share photography tips that will help you to get the best out of other times of the day, too, when most photographers hang up their gear – in the hard light of noon or the ethereal light of the moon.
Photographing landscapes at dawn isn’t without its challenges, but it often provides two bites at the cherry – one of any pre-dawn colour in the clouds before the sun comes up, and one of the sunrise itself.
1 Be a weather forecaster
Local weather conditions are incredibly important for dawn shots, so you need to do your research before you arrive at your chosen location. For our shoot at Corfe Castle in Dorset (above), for example, we were hoping for some low-lying fog, which typically forms on clear nights when cold, heavy air settles in hollows. We timed our shoot with this in mind, and made sure to keep a keen eye out for heavy dew the night before – usually a sign that the air is cold enough to condense water droplets in the air. In the end, the fog we’d been hoping for sadly didn’t materialise, but fortunately we still managed to get plenty of other great shots.
2 Do a recce
Get to know the lie of the land, because you need to determine the best vantage point, or points, for your subject based on whether you want to shoot into, or away from, the sun. If possible, it’s a good idea to do a daylight recce beforehand so that you don’t have to yomp around in the dark looking for the best spot. If this isn’t possible, take a look at the relevant Ordnance Survey map to determine where to park, which path to take, and so on.
3 Get there early
When trying to decide how early to get up, remember that the sky is often at its most colourful before the sun comes up (just as sunsets are at their most colourful in the minutes after the sun has disappeared). This means you need to be in position with your tripod set up and filters in place long before the sun actually rises. Despite timing our arrival at Corfe Castle perfectly, we still almost missed the colour in the clouds. They came and went in what seemed like seconds, and were at their most intense just long enough for us to fire off a handful of frames.
4 Expose to the right
Exposure can be tricky at dawn, particularly if you’re shooting towards a rising sun, when the sky will invariably be much brighter than the foreground. Graduated Neutral Density (ND) filters will help, but it can still be tricky to determine optimum exposure using the LCD. The solution is to tweak exposure so that your shot’s histogram is as far to the right as possible without it being ‘clipped’ (pushed off the end of the graph) at the highlight end. This is partly because sensors are most sensitive at this end and partly because recovering detail from bright highlights post-shoot creates less noise than recovering detail from dark shadows. It’s also a good idea to bracket your shots, because the less you have to tweak your exposure in Photoshop, the lower the risk of adding unwanted noise to the image.
5 Have a plan B
Things don’t always go according to plan, so it’s a good idea to have a back-up plan. After capturing some pre-sunrise colour at Corfe Castle, our hoped-for sunrise came to nothing, so rather than waste time flogging a flat sky, we decided to head to nearby Swanage, safe in the knowledge that the disappointing overcast conditions would actually suit a long-exposure seascape. Our image of an old stone pier (below) was shot using a 10-stop ND filter, which gave us a shutter speed of 25 secs at f/13 – plenty long enough to blur the water and create a silky-smooth sea.
6 Keep colours subtle
As is the case with any shoot, the creative process will continue long after you’ve taken your photograph. The thing to remember when you’re processing dawn and sunrise shots is that the colours are often quite saturated already. The temptation is to ramp them up using Curves – or the Saturation filter – in Adobe Camera Raw, but keeping them subtle will yield far more effective results. Nightscapes, by contrast, often need a helping hand when it comes to giving their dusky blues a boost in post-processing.
The ‘magic hours’ around dawn and dusk aren’t the only times to capture stunning pictures. Don’t hang up your camera at lunchtime – there are good photos to be had in the harsh midday light.
7 Ditch the tripod
The bright midday light will result in fast shutter speeds, making lunchtime the perfect opportunity to ditch the tripod and try shooting handheld. Not only will this free you from the hassle of lugging a heavy piece of kit around, you’ll also be able to compose shots more spontaneously. It’s much easier to experiment with new angles without a tripod. Even in bright light it’s possible to get camera shake, so ensure that your shutter speed is fast enough to avoid this. As a general rule of thumb, use a shutter speed that’s no slower than the longest focal length of the lens you’re using. For example, if you’re using a 60mm lens, ensure your shutter speed is 1/60 sec or faster.
8 Go abstract
The usually unattractive bright light and hard shadows created by the midday sun are perfect for abstract photography, so get creative and free yourself from the constraints of composition, leading lines or bothersome foreground interest. By definition, abstract implies that the subject is separated from its context; that the visual elements of the image are about form, shape, texture and colour rather than a true representation of an object or scene. On our landscape shoot we found a small boatyard, which proved a veritable gold mine of abstract delights. Bold, bright and vibrant colours, peeling paint, rusted metals and dynamic shapes were plentiful, and it was difficult to know where to start!
9 Use the histogram
Getting your exposure right in bright light is just as essential as at any other time of the day. Viewing your camera’s LCD screen will be more difficult in these conditions, and you’ll get a skewed impression of the exposure, so it’s vital to use the histogram to check your exposures are right. Ideally, you’re looking for a histogram that’s clumped to the right, but not clipped.
10 Think about colour theory
Experiment with colour. The contrasting primary colours in the boatyard were perfect for colourful abstracts. While the contrasting blues and reds alongside bold shapes made good photos, so too did the more muted colour palettes of old peeling paint and rusty metals. These tertiary hues also made a great subject for colour abstracts. In most cases, setting your D-SLR’s white balance to Auto (AWB) will help you to achieve great results. However, it’s worth experimenting with different presets to accentuate colour – try Tungsten in daylight to boost blues or Shade in sunlight to make colours warmer.
11 Work with the shadows
The harsh shadows of noon are generally considered a nuisance for photographers, but if you look at them in the right way, they can be used to your advantage, because crisp, high-contrast shadows help to define lines, textures and shapes.
We headed for the beach searching for sand ripples and mini tributaries that looked great in the bright light. The hard shadows actually helped to accentuate the shapes of these features, which in turn made the shots look really strong and effective. It can be difficult to capture detail in both the shadow and the highlight areas – after a bit of trial and error, we found it best to let the shadows fall into a deep black while keeping the detail in the highlights. This subject also worked particularly well in black and white, so it’s a good idea to think about how your image might look in mono as you shoot.
12 Get a polariser
Tame the harsh midday light with a polarising filter. This will help cut glare and reflections on water and shiny foliage in a scene, intensifying colours as a result. They’re great for revealing detail under the surface of lakes and rivers – the higher your viewing angle, the more effective the polarising effect.
Landscape photographers call the time just before and after dusk ‘the golden hour’ for good reason. In the right conditions, the angle and quality of light add life to any scene.
13 Try long exposures
Shooting at dusk will inevitably mean using slow shutter speeds, so take all the usual precautions, such as using a sturdy tripod, cable release and locking your camera’s internal mirror in the ‘up’ position. However, be careful. Once or twice while shooting at Durdle Door (above) we had to quickly move our tripod out of the way of unexpected waves, so don’t suspend your precious kit bag from the central column for extra stability. Keep it on your back and use a bag of stones instead. Whatever terrain you’re shooting on, make sure that your tripod’s feet are firmly rooted in the ground to ensure the sharpest shots possible.
14 Experiment with blur
Take advantage of low light and the long exposures you’ll need to get creative with water shots. As always, keep an eye out for effective leading lines and a strong focal point. It’s difficult to predict exactly how water will look during a 2 to 5 second exposure, so there’s a certain amount of trial and error needed. The results will be worth it, though, so make sure you’ve got plenty of space on your memory card and take lots of shots to maximise your chances of capturing something good.
Blurred water will look best as a wave recedes, so get your timing right and release the shutter just as a wave hits its highest point – it should start to wash back during the exposure. We used a Lee 0.6 ND filter to increase the shutter speed by 2 stops, from 0.5 sec to 2 secs. We also used a soft ND grad to slightly darken the sky and help balance the exposure.
15 Follow the tide
Getting the timing of tides and sunsets right is essential for capturing a good shot, so check online before you head out. There are plenty of websites that will provide this information, such as the weather section of www.bbc.co.uk. Whenever possible, it’s best to time your coastal photography around a receding tide. This way, you’ll be following the tide out rather than being chased up the beach by incoming water. Working with wet feet is a nasty experience, trust us.
16 Get your timing right
It’s crucial to understand that at different times of the year in the UK, the sun will set at different points. It’s not just a case of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west; in the summer, the sun rises to the south east and sets to the north west (south east and south west in the winter). An Ordnance Survey map is very useful for working out your position in relation to the setting sun, but so too is local knowledge. If you don’t know the area, find someone who does and pick their brains.
17 It’s behind you…
Shooting at dusk can be so engrossing that it’s easy to forget to look around, meaning that you might miss some potentially great shots. While we were photographing the falling light hitting Durdle Door, there was a wonderful sunset behind us. We only had to turn around for a number of new photo opportunities.
When shooting towards a sunset, look for subjects that will make a bold silhouette against the sky, such as a fence or line of trees, which will create graphic shapes that work perfectly
as silhouettes and create a strong leading line into the shot. Expose for the sky and let the foreground go black. Your histogram will look clipped towards the left-hand side, but this is absolutely fine.
18 Make your images really pop
Get your shots right in-camera and keep your post-processing to a minimum by concentrating on your camera craft. The digital darkroom should be used as a powerful tool to make a good shot better, and never as a means of salvaging a duff one. Shoot in RAW so that you can squeeze as much detail and quality from your images as possible. We used Adobe Camera Raw post-shoot to enhance the tones of shots by boosting the contrast, then brought out the colour of the light using the Vibrance slider. Despite using an ND grad at the point of capture, we also used the Graduated Filter tool (CS4 and above) to give the effect a boost.
Photographing landscapes at night will almost guarantee striking results, even in well-photographed places. All you need are clear skies, a full moon, and a high-powered torch…
19 Take a test shot
We timed our night shoot at Portland Bill lighthouse (above) to coincide with the full moon, to give us plenty of ambient light to work with. Before we even set up our tripod, we selected our camera’s highest ISO (3200) and widest aperture (f/4) and took a few test shots. At this stage, it didn’t matter that the images were noisy, or that they were a bit blurred, because the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough to shoot handheld – all we were doing was seeing what might work, without having to set up our tripod and wait the 30 seconds or more it would have taken to expose a shot at ISO 100. When we were done, we set our ISO back to 100 to ensure grain-free shots.
20 Lock your lens
Once you’re happy with your composition, mount the camera on a tripod and placing the central focus point over the part of the scene you want to focus on. For the shot above, we chose the light of the lighthouse, as it had a bright, sharp edge for the lens to lock on to. Once we’d focused by half-pressing the shutter button, we then switched our lens to Manual to lock the focus and recomposed our shot before locking off our tripod head. With the shot set up, we also locked up our DSLR’s mirror to reduce the vibrations caused by it opening and closing, reducing the risk of camera shake. We also hung a heavy bag from the central column of our tripod, and sheltered the camera from the wind with our bodies, again to try and eliminate blur.
21 Open wide
At night, exposure is a trade-off between depth of field on one hand and how long you’re prepared to wait on the other. Most landscape pros set an aperture of f/16 during the day to ensure a good depth of field, but at night this can mean exposure times of 30 minutes or more, which isn’t always realistic. In reality, though, foreground detail isn’t as critical as it is during the day – it’s often in shadow, so you can often get away with f/5.6 for wide-angle shots.
22 Ignore your LCD
When it comes to working out exposure on a shot, try not to rely on your LCD at night, as it will tend to look overly bright – use the histogram instead. Because our scene was darker than mid-grey, we made sure that our histogram was bunched over towards the left – but not so far across that the shadows were clipped (and therefore detail-free), as this would have resulted in black shadows that would have proved impossible to recover in Photoshop.
23 Set ‘B’ for Bulb
For most night shots, you have to set your camera to Bulb, because at ISO 100 your exposure will almost certainly be longer than your camera’s longest shutter speed. However, thanks to the light from the full moon, we were able to get away with a shutter speed of 30 secs. We then timed our exposure to include some fast-moving clouds, which registered as a wispy blur, adding an element of interest and drama to the night sky. If you’re really into night photography, get a remote shutter release with a timer function, as this will enable you to set exposures from 1 sec up to 99 hours without having to check your watch all the time.
24 Keep the noise down
When you’re processing night shots post-shoot, it’s a good idea to process them twice – once for the sky, using noise reduction software, and a second time for the landscape, without noise reduction. Noise is much more noticeable in large expanses of colour, such as skies, than it is in areas with plenty of detail, but because noise reduction smooths out pixels, if you try to reduce noise across the whole image, you’ll also lose detail and sharpness in your landscape. Once you’re happy with the processing, you can then merge the noise-free sky with the sharp landscape using layers and Layer Masks in Photoshop.
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