Commandment 7: Balance the exposure
Our eyes have a much greater dynamic range than a digital camera. We can see marginal differences in the brightness of white fluffy clouds above a landscape as well as the detail of the grass in the deep shade beneath the trees, but cameras can’t – in an image the clouds may be a burned-out mass of white, and the shadows may be a featureless black.
To produce images that appear the same as we see the landscape, you need to balance the exposure of the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. With landscapes this usually means reducing the exposure of the sky so that it matches the exposure required by the land.
Traditionally, this is done with a graduated neutral density filter, with the grey section covering the sky so that the exposure is reduced in this area.
It’s important to take care with the positioning of the filter’s light-to-dark transition. It needs to be close to the horizon without descending beneath it, otherwise the furthest part of the land will be darkened.
Graduated ND filters are available in a variety of densities, usually cutting out one, two or three stops of light at their densest part. They come with hard and soft gradations: a hard grad is useful when there’s a clear, fairly flat horizon, whereas a soft grad helps when features such as trees or mountains break up the skyline.
If you only buy one ND grad, go for a hard grad that cuts out two stops of light (for more advice, see our in-depth guide ND Grad Filters: what every photographer should know).
Digital photography offers another way of balancing the exposure across a landscape image; shooting two (or more) images with different exposures and then combining them into one single picture.
This can be done using high dynamic range (HDR) software such as Photomatix, or Photoshop’s Photomerge feature, but the end result doesn’t have to look like an over-processed HDR image (learn how to make realistic HDR photos in Photomatix Pro).
Often the best way to merge multiple exposures is to combine them manually in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.
Just drag one image onto the other to create a new layer and then erase part of the top image to reveal the one below, or use a layer mask to conceal part of the upper layer (check out our step-by-step tutorial on how to make an exposure blend in Photoshop).
Break The Rules: Use it or lose it
Sometimes at sunrise and sunset the sky is the most interesting and dramatic part of the scene, and balancing the exposure only reduces its impact.
When this happens, don’t worry about the exposure of the foreground – look around for interesting shapes along the horizon to help give scale and context, and then expose for the sky and allow anything beneath it to become silhouetted.
Conversely, if the sky is flat, white and dull, don’t include it in the shot and concentrate on the land instead.
Always try to shoot so that the sides of hills create the backdrop to your scene, or photograph interesting patterns and details.
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Commandment 8: Boost greens and blues
The majority of landscapes contain lots of green and blue so it makes sense to give these colours a little extra zing. The landscape option of the scene modes usually cranks up the saturation of greens and blues.
It also takes control of white balance and exposure, and it will attempt to set a low sensitivity setting and narrow aperture so that shots have lots of sharp detail.
Experienced photographers who want to take control of the exposure themselves will find aperture-priority mode a better choice, but they can still boost greens and blues by using the landscape option of their camera’s colour modes – these are called Picture Styles on Canon cameras and Picture Control settings on Nikon SLRs (learn more about how to use your Canon Picture Styles).
Scene modes tailor aspects such as exposure, white balance, sharpening and colour, whereas colour modes merely adjust the balance and saturation of colours, and they can be applied in any exposure mode.
In-camera colour preferences are applied to JPEG images, but they can also usually be applied to raw files at the conversion stage using the software supplied with the camera.
Alternatively, the HSL/Grayscale section of Adobe Camera Raw enables the saturation of individual colours to be increased or decreased.
With Canon DSLRs you can use the supplied software to create your own Picture Style, which can then be uploaded to the camera for regular use in the future.
Break The Rules: Suit the scene
If the scene doesn’t contain much blue or green there’s not much point in cranking up their saturation. On a beach it might be better to give the yellows or reds a boost.
This can be done by selecting the portrait colour mode – don’t use the portrait scene mode as this will usually result in a fairly wide aperture, which will restrict the depth of field. Portrait colour mode is also a good choice for bringing out the warm tones of autumn.
Landscapes don’t have to be colour – they also look great in monochrome – especially if there are dramatic or stormy clouds overhead (for more, see our tutorial The Black and White Landscape: make a mono masterpiece).
The best digital black-and-white images are usually created by converting a colour image using Photoshop or Silver Efex Pro (check out these 8 other ways to convert to black and white in Photoshop).
A raw file is the best starting point, but we recommend shooting raw and JPEG files simultaneously if possible. Set your camera to monochrome mode so that you can see black-and-white versions of the scene on the LCD – this will help you to assess the image more accurately on your LCD.
The raw files will still have the full colour information so you can easily convert them to monochrome at a later stage if you wish.
Color Theory: the best color combinations for photography (and how to take it further)
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Better pictures of fog and mist: adding intrigue to an everyday landscape
How to track the sun for perfect landscape photos
12 promises every landscape photographer must make