Professional Landscape Techniques

Welcome to a detailed run-down of professional landscape techniques.

These techniques are required for the very best quality (resolution and clarity) needed for fine art landscape images.

because if its high quality needs, landscape photography is one of the most demanding styles of photography, but is deceptively easy to get right if you pay attention to some fundamental techniques. The basic principles go back to dawn of photography and are now, more achievable than ever.

Vibration is your enemy in high quality landscape imaging. This can come from several sources.

  • The most destructive on an SLR is the camera’s “mirror shock”.

  • The second is the camera’s shutter firing.

  • The process of firing off the shutter (pushing the shutter button).

  • Wind. Sometimes hard to spot, this can be a problem.

  • Ground Vibrations. Powerful water falls and shooting near busy roads are examples of things that can introduce vibrations, again sometimes hard to spot.

  • Using long lenses exaggerates all of the above, so avoid using them unless you are sure you can control these quality stealing issues.

Lets look at the basics.

ISO. Set an ISO setting from low to 200. You are looking for the best image quality and have time on your hands, so use the lowest ISO you can for the very best quality. Low ISO settings make the camera less sensitive to light, but give you the lowest noise (grain), sharpest details and cleanest colours. Low ISO sensitivity will be balanced out by giving the camera more time (slower shutter speeds), but often require a tripod.

Live view. Live view mode (mirrorless cameras always use live view, SLR’s need to have it engaged by activating the back screen, but not in video mode!). LV is very useful for several reasons;

  • It shows you the exact point of focus as the camera’s sensor sees it (i.e the actual end photo). You can magnify the image on the screen using the same buttons you use to look closer in at your review images, allowing very precise and accurate focus anywhere on the screen.

  • It shows you the exposure, again as the camera’s sensor sees it. In effect “what you see is what you will get” . This also applies to flare, filter or hood vignetting and other things that may be rendered differently in the eye piece compared to directly off the sensor.

  • Optionally the screen can show you a brighter image than the actual exposure to help when using strong ND filters as it can be set to let you see the image through an almost black filter.

  • On SLR cameras, the mirror raising and dropping is one of the primary causes of vibration, which robs you of sharpness (remember landscape images are the ones that often get blown up in big prints). In live view, the mirror is locked up, fixing one problem automatically.

  • It often allows you better angles to the camera, allowing for very low or high shots, that may be impossible or uncomfortable using the eye piece.

  • If you are using depth of field preview, which allows the camera to show you the depth of field of the photo before you take it, the screen on the back will be brighter and clearer. If you use the view finder on an SLR, it will darken right down to the taking aperture, making it nearly impossible to see the actual DOF.

Manual Focus (see live view). Use manual focus for accuracy and repeatability rather than subject tracking and speed. There is nothing more frustrating than setting your perfect point of focus only for it to jump to another spot every time you go to take the shot.

Aperture Priority mode. Aperture priority is chosen because lens apertures (among other things) control depth of field (note 1). Choose (usually) an aperture from f8 to f16 or sometimes f22, which will give you the maximum possible depth of field, but avoid quality robbing diffraction (note 2).

Depth of field is vitally important to landscape photographers, because most of the image needs to be in focus from front to back and the most common fault with landscape images is a soft (out of focus) and distracting foreground. To avoid this, focus on a foreground subject, letting Depth Of Field include the background in focus. Remember that depth of field falls 1/3rd in front and 2/3 behind the point of best focus.

There are apps available that can calculate your hyper focal distance which is the best focussing point for maximum depth of field you can get with any given lens/camera/aperture combination.

Tilt the camera downwards. If you are taking an image that has too much relative distance from the front to the back compared to the distance from you to the focussed subject, tilt the camera slightly forward to change the plane of focus (note 1).

Taken recently as an example at a workshop, this image uses a slightly tilted camera to add DOF. The focus point was the clump of rocks in the foreground with an aperture of f6.3 and the shutter speed roughly 1.5 seconds. Without tilting, the DOF would have only allowed focus from the foreground to half way up the stream or the waterfall only with a soft foreground. The catch with tilting is that anything in the top of the frame that is near to you will be out of focus.  This image would have been better balanced with wet rocks less wind and less sunlight, but time was poor.

Taken recently as an example at a workshop, this image uses a slightly tilted camera to add DOF. The focus point was the clump of rocks in the foreground with an aperture of f6.3 and the shutter speed roughly 1.5 seconds. Without tilting, the DOF would have only allowed focus from the foreground to half way up the stream or the waterfall only with a soft foreground. The catch with tilting is that anything in the top of the frame that is near to you will be out of focus. This image would have been better balanced with wet rocks less wind and less sunlight, but time was poor.

The shutter. We have looked at ways avoiding vibration by locking up the mirror (only relevant if you have an SLR), making sure file quality is at it’s best using a low ISO and getting enough Depth of Field from front to back. The final thing is to control shutter (fire) vibration.

This comes in two forms.

Firstly we have to try to tame the vibration caused just by the shutter firing. All moving parts cause vibrations and even the best made mechanical camera shutters are subject to this. At high shutter speeds it is not an issue as the vibration does not have time to register and at very long (1 minute+) shutter speeds it is less of an issue as the effect of the vibration is short lived over a long exposure time, but at shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second to 60 seconds, it can be image ruining.

If your camera has an electronic or “silent” shutter option, use it. If not you may need to experiment to see if your camera and lens combinations can produce critically sharp images over these times. Long lenses will be hardest to tame as they exaggerate all vibrations directly in proportion to their magnification and often unbalance the camera. If a long lens has a tripod collar, use it to for better balance. If you are still having trouble, a heavier, or artificially heavy (note 3) tripod or more stable tripod head (note 4) are the only answer.

The second source of shutter vibration is the process of actually activating (pushing) the shutter. If possible you should not touch your camera at all for a few seconds before you take the image. There are several ways of releasing the shutter without touching the camera. A hard wired cable release is best for very long or “Bulb” exposures as you can “lock it and leave it” for as long as you want. A cordless one is more convenient for shutter speeds you can set on the camera (often up to 60”) and often there is an app available for your camera so you can use your phone as a remote.

The lens hood. The lens hood is important for keeping glare off the front of your lens, especially when using flat filters as opposed to curved lenses. Unfortunately, hoods can catch strong wind. If this is likely, you are better off removing the hood and using your hand to shield the lens from off angle sun light.

(Not so optional) Accessories

Tripods. This is not really an option. Any time you want the best quality images, using low ISO settings and deep depth of field, will require a tripod because the thing that will have to give is the shutter speed. Also, deliberate very long exposures (see ND filters) will be possible with a tripod.

Best user practices with a tripod are;

  • Always point one leg “down a hill” if used on a slope to avoid accidents.

  • Always test the tripod for stability before putting your camera on it.

  • Make sure the legs are at full spread and even as possible.

  • Always turn off the camera’s stabiliser (especially on lens ones) as it may try to shift as you are taking the image.

  • Use the thickest legs possible (go as low as you can, when you can).

  • Avoid using the centre column unless there is no other option.

  • Weigh the tripod down or brace it if possible***.

Anyone spot what is wrong here? The camera and lens are top of the line, the tripod, a very expensive heavy duty Gitzo, but all of the quality the expensive gear promises is at the mercy of a centre column at full extension, the least stable section of any tripod. In all fairness it is probably being used instead of the last leg sections to keep the tripod’s foot print smaller (but easier to knock over!). and probably just for a “group selfie”, but still a good example of what  not  to do.

Anyone spot what is wrong here? The camera and lens are top of the line, the tripod, a very expensive heavy duty Gitzo, but all of the quality the expensive gear promises is at the mercy of a centre column at full extension, the least stable section of any tripod. In all fairness it is probably being used instead of the last leg sections to keep the tripod’s foot print smaller (but easier to knock over!). and probably just for a “group selfie”, but still a good example of what not to do.

Polarisers. Polarising filters remove the wave lengths water vapour inhabit. This has the effect of removing glare from surfaces making them cleaner and punchier, removing the “blue haze” often encountered in shaded, wet places and can see through the surface of water. These things cannot easily be fixed in post processing.

Neutral Density filters. If you want a really slow shutter speed in bright light, a Neutral Density filter is a must. Even using the lowest ISO setting, and a small aperture, the slowest shutter speed you may be able to get will be 1 or 2 seconds. This is enough to blur water, but gives you little control over how much.

Your first option is to wait until the sun goes down, but for those of us who do not like to stumble around in the dark, an ND filter is a must. Available in fixed value or variable models and also in split types for graduated effect, they can block out as many as 10 shutter speeds of light, making a 1/30th of a second shutter speed a 30 second one. When purchasing them the terminology can be confusing (and unfortunately not standardised through brands). Some use the # of stops (shutter speeds) they block, others use multiples of exposure like 400x or 1000x. Think about how many shutter speeds you will most likely need and you will know what to look for, or just get a variable one.

A detail shot of the waterfall above shot at 40 seconds. This shot without an ND filter would have been 1 to 2 seconds at most and would have looked different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

A detail shot of the waterfall above shot at 40 seconds. This shot without an ND filter would have been 1 to 2 seconds at most and would have looked different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

Things you cannot fully control

Light and environment. The food that sustains photographers is light. the quality of light is hard to control, often meaning you have to apply plenty of time and perseverance for best results. Early morning and late evening (the so called “golden hour”), can help add colour and drama. Overcast is better for some subjects where excessive contrast will be uncontrollable, such as waterfall shots in deep ravines or macro shots and even bad weather can help add drama to a dull sky. Good light is always better than over processing.

Wet things have better colour saturation and are generally more contrasty than dry, dusty ones, but a polariser may be needed to avoid colour robbing water glare.

Learn to read how the light adds drama, how it effects shadows (stronger the light, stronger the shadows for better or worse) and how different shooting angles can create different effects.

The images below are the same leaf taken at the same time, but from two different angles to the sun.

A lot to deal with? It probably seems so now, but as soon as you start to get on top of these things, your images will reach the stars.

*

(1) For a full explanation of depth of field see the “Explaining Depth of Field” article further down.

(2) Diffraction, which is one law of physics that we cannot fight, may rob you of some quality if you use apertures smaller than f8-11 (Crop sensor or micro 43) or f16 (Full frame). Diffraction is where light passing through a hole (the lens aperture in this case) scatters around the holes edges. At wide apertures, a lens is a large hole with a lot of clean, sharp, non diffracted light. At smaller apertures, the ratio of edge to hole is greater meaning the image is made up of more diffracted or scattered light and looks less sharp. Most common lens resolution tests will give you an idea of your lenses diffraction limit.

(3) Tricks for making your tripod effectively heavier include;

  • Leaning your bag on a leg or hang your camera bag from it’s centre column.

  • Hanging a string bag off of it and putting a rock in the bag.

  • Connecting an elastic strap to the tripods centre column, running it under your foot and pulling it tight.

  • Using a bean bag or your camera bag instead of the tripod as a soft support.

  • Creating a “cup” that your bean bag can sit in on the tripod can help tame long lenses.

  • A brace arm or gimbol for heavy lenses can help also.

    One of my personal favourite lenses, the Canon 200mm f2.8L refused to settle for me on a 5D mk2 until I braced the lens with a small metal ruler running from the base of the camera to the front of the lens with a little blue tack to hold it still.

(4) The tripod head is often a cause for confusion. Ball heads are very popular as they are low profile and easy to use, but small ones add a thin neck that can be too small for proper stability (see “avoid the tripod centre column” above). The best ball heads are short and broad necked.

Non ball heads are more stable and better at load bearing, but are less popular as they often have adjustment arms poking out in multiple directions. An old favourite of mine is the Manfrotto 460 MG. This cheap and light head had similar movements and profile to a ball head and short knob style controls. Any vibrations had to turn a corner, making it more stable, unlike the direct transmission ball head neck.

Before buying a new tripod, check to make sure the head is not going to be a stability problem.