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.
Commandment 1: Shoot during the golden hour
Commandment 2: Use a wideangle lens
Commandment 3: Use the Rule of Thirds
Commandment 4: Find foreground interest
Commandment 5: Use a steady tripod
Commandment 6: Focus one third in
Commandment 7: Balance the exposure
Commandment 8: Boost greens and blues
Commandment 9: Use a narrow aperture
Commandment 10: Use a low ISO setting
10 common exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to fix them)
Famous Photographers: 100 things we wish we knew starting out
How to see photos like famous photographers… every time you shoot
The Decisive Moment: how nature photographers can make the most of it