When you first start out in landscape photography, observing a few of the classic conventions can really make a difference to the kind of results you get. Just knowing how to adjust aperture so you get maximum depth of field in an image is a big help, as is understanding some of the classic theories of photo composition.
But here’s the thing: if you rigidly apply even the best landscape photography tips to every single shot you take, your images will soon look very samey and formulaic. It’s a balancing act between convention and experimentation, and to help you make the best creative decisions we’ve put together what we believe are the 10 Commandments of Landscape Photography – and a helpful guide for knowing when to break them.
10 Commandments of landscape photography (and how to break them)
Commandment 1: Shoot during the golden hour
Great landscape photography is as much about planning, preparation and patience as it is about focal lengths, f-stops and filters. A few minutes spent checking the weather forecast, scouting the location and waiting for the right light can make an enormous difference to the final image.
Of course, your wait for the ‘right’ light will be a lot shorter if you head out at the right time of day. Shoot too close to noon in the summer and you’ll be rewarded with short, dense, black shadows and harsh highlights from the overhead sun, so that even a hilly landscape will look flat and uninteresting.
However, if you shoot in the hour after sunrise or before sunset the sun is much lower in the sky, and the longer, softer shadows reveal the undulations in the vista before you. The light also has a warmer colour, making the whole scene look so much more inviting than a midday landscape (learn more about warm and cool colours with our cheat sheet to understanding the colour temperature scale).
The key to shooting in what’s often referred to as ‘the golden hour’ is to arrive well in advance so that the camera is set up on the tripod, the image is composed, and the filters are in place long before the perfect light appears.
In the morning this means getting up before dawn, which in the summer feels like the middle of the night! It’s worth it though, because pockets of early morning mist and a light sprinkling of dew can give landscapes a magical, untouched appearance that will give your images the edge.
If you really can’t bear to get up before dawn, the best alternative is to shoot at dusk. Obviously there won’t be any dew to twinkle in the low sunlight, but any flowers that close overnight will be fully open, and it’s easier to see the image you’re composing while you wait for the perfect light to arrive.
SEE MORE: 10 quick landscape photography tips
Break The Rules: Shoot day and night
You don’t have to restrict your shoot to either end of the day – provided you find the right scene, there are plenty of other occasions when the light is also ‘right’. Lighthouses and coastal scenes, for example, can look great against a deep blue sky in strong sunlight. The middle of the day is also a good time to shoot in woodlands, where the high sun illuminates the leaves.
Consider shooting before sunrise or after sunset when the land is illuminated by the soft light of the sky and moon. With exposures that run into several minutes, the results can be striking, and viewers will struggle to work out what’s different about the images.
Make sure you use a good, solid tripod and set your camera to bulb mode to allow a sufficiently long exposure, triggering the shutter with a remote release (find out how to use a tripod the right way).
Focusing can be tricky at night, so switch to manual focus and aim to focus about one third into the scene (find out the 12 common errors of night photography – and how to fix them). Use the distance scale on your lens as a guide.
To set the exposure at night, try metering with the camera set to a high sensitivity setting and at the widest aperture, and then calculate the exposure from there. An exposure of 2 secs at f/2.8 and ISO3200, for example, is equivalent to an exposure of 64 secs at f/2.8 and ISO100, or 16 mins at f/11 and ISO100.
It’s also worth activating your camera’s long-exposure noise-reduction system, although it will double the time to get each shot (find out more about how to reduce noise at high ISO settings).
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Commandment 2: Use a wideangle lens
A lot of landscape photography is about capturing sweeping views. Wide-angle lenses are the logical choice because they allow you to get more into the frame. Anything with an effective focal length shorter than 50mm (or 35mm if you’re using an APS-C format camera) is considered a wide-angle lens, but 21mm and 24mm lenses are popular choices. To get an equivalent view on an APS-C camera you need to use a lens with a focal length of around 14mm-16mm.
You can use the 18-55mm lens that’s usually supplied with an SLR, but the best results are produced by fixed focal-length lenses, which are generally sharper across the frame.
Chromatic aberration, which reveals itself as coloured haloes along high-contrast edges such as the horizon or along branches, is also usually better controlled by lenses with a fixed focal length (Learn more about chromatic aberration with our free photography cheat sheet).
These mono-focal length lenses also tend to suffer less from distortion, but then a little bowing isn’t usually noticeable in the average landscape.
The native aspect ratio of a camera is dictated by the shape of its sensor, which means that with the exception of Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras, most images tend to be captured in 3:2 format.
However, there’s no reason you should stick to this. Landscapes can look great in portrait or landscape format, and in 16:9, 5:4, 4:3, square or any other format you care to use – panoramics, for example, can work particularly well.
Some digital cameras have an aspect-ratio setting that crops the JPEG files automatically to help you judge the format. And if you change your mind about the crop later on, you can simply use the uncropped raw file.
Alternatively, a couple of small pieces of card cut into two L-shapes can help you visualise the cropped image on the back of the camera.
Break The Rules: Zoom in
It may not be the automatic choice for landscape photography, but a telephoto lens is useful for capturing distant details or isolating parts of a scene.
Using a longer lens reduces depth of field and appears to compress perspective so that interlocking hills look closer together, and repeating patterns in the landscape are emphasised.
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