landscape photography

How to do landscape photography like a professional

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I spent over a decade living in the UK and photographing the British landscape, not as it is, but as I see it in my mind. As the great Ansel Adams said: “You don’t take a picture. You make it.”

In order to become a good photographer, one needs to master not only the technical craft but also the art of photography. And this is easier said than done.

Photography is the art of crafting light. The word ‘photograph’ has Greek roots – being a combination of ‘phos’ (light) and ‘graphé’ (drawing).

I captured images using a variety of different photographic techniques including neutral density filters, high dynamic range photography (HDR), tone mapping, stacking, exposure blending and digital panorama stitching.

The science of photography

A photographer’s medium is light itself and one needs to understand its properties and behaviour. Light is unique in the sense that it is both particle and wave.

Exposure

As a photographer, we are always trying to capture just the right amount of light to create a photographic exposure. Too much light and the exposure is too high, resulting in all the brighter parts of the scene, such as clouds in the sky, losing all texture and tonal detail and rendering an area of solid white.

Too little and the darker areas of the image and middle values, such as the ground, trees and foliage come out completely black.

The units of measure for light generally used in photography are called stops. Every time a stop is increased, the amount of light is doubled.

The human eye can see about 16 stops of light at any given time. This is a sliding range that can adapt itself over a 20-stop absolute range.

For example, when one walks into a cinema, it takes a moment for one to adjust to the low light as one’s iris opens up to allow for more light.

Similarly, when one walks into bright sunlight, it takes a while for one’s iris to close down and adjust to the sun. In both scenarios, one’s eyes are showing about 16 stops of light but have adjusted by about an extra four stops to adapt to the environment.

Aperture

Just like the iris in our eye, camera lenses have an aperture (opening) built in that gives the photographer control over the amount of light coming through the lens.

The aperture size is measured in f-stops and written as f/[number] – the smaller the number, the wider the aperture.

Whilst wide apertures allow more light in, they also result in shallower depth of field. Depth of field is the volume in front of the camera where objects appear to be in focus.

Small apertures tend to generate greater depth of field at the cost of reducing the light that comes through to the sensor.

One-third of the depth of field extends from the point of focus towards the camera whilst two-thirds of the depth of field extends beyond the point of focus.

For example, if the focus is set to a distance of 10 metres, a wide aperture may give you a depth of field of three metres, i.e., everything between nine metres to 12 metres would be in focus.

A small aperture, on the other hand, may give you a depth of field of 15 metres where any objects that lie between five metres to 20 metres in front of the lens would be in focus.

Two-thirds of the depth of field extends further away from the plane of focus (the distance where the focus is set) whilst one-third lies from the plane of focus extending towards the camera.

Shutter speed

Besides the amount of light coming through, another aspect that the photographer needs to consider is how long to allow that light to come through. This is done using a shutter that is present inside either the camera or lens.

The faster the shutter speed, the more frozen in time any moving objects in the scene will appear such as the birds in the sky and the waves in the image below:

Sunset at Bournemouth Beach

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon
Number of exposures: 1
Aperture: f/16
ISO: 800
Shutter speed(s): 1/80 sec.

Leave the shutter open for a longer duration and any moving elements in the scene will become motion blurred. The amount of motion blur will depend on the length of time the shutter is open for.

The images below illustrate different shutter speeds used to blur the motion of the waves to varying degrees.

Sea Petal

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon
Number of exposures: 1
Aperture: f/16
ISO: 100
Shutter speed(s): 4 sec.

Sea, Sky and Shore

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 DG
Number of exposures: 1
Aperture: f/16
ISO: 100
Shutter speed(s): 31 sec.

Old Harry

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Lens: Sigma 24mm f/1.8 EX DG
Number of exposures: 1
Aperture: f/16
ISO: 160
Shutter speed(s): 120.0 sec.

Longer shutter speeds can create interesting images, turning moving elements in the scene, such as clouds and water, misty. However, longer shutter speeds require the camera to be completely still and use of a tripod is therefore essential.

Camera sensor

Finally, the camera sensor is an important element to consider. It has a number of photosites responsible for actually recording the light.

You can make the sensor more or less responsive to light by changing a setting known as ISO.

The higher the ISO number, the more responsive the sensor is. However, the sensor noise also increases when you increase the ISO.

Therefore, it is important to keep the ISO as low as possible whilst still getting the correct exposure.

Landscape photography

When photographing landscapes, one has to work with available light and this requires continuously improvising and responding to any lighting changes in order to create the desired look.

You can limit the light entering the lens by placing certain filters in front of it but you cannot manipulate the light in the surroundings to become brighter given the intensity and vastness of the landscape.

The amount of light digital cameras can record in a single exposure varies greatly from camera to camera but even with most of the latest cameras, it is difficult to record beyond a range of 7-8 stops when the scene contrast might be as wide as 22 stops.

There are two main techniques employed by landscape photographers in such instances.

The purist approach is to use graduated neutral density (ND Grad) filters which are pieces of glass or resin that are completely transparent at one end and dark at the other.

These filters are available in normal, hard and soft graduation between light and dark, and, in varying intensities.

These filters are essentially used to bring the exposure of the sky down, closer to the exposure required for the ground so that the overall exposure is within range of the camera sensor.

Whilst these filters work very well for landscapes with a straight horizon, they end up darkening any landscape features that may poke up cutting across the horizon, such as buildings, hills or mountains.


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