Landscape Primer

We’ve decided to spread our wings and try some landscape photography primarily to fill in the gaps that inevitably occur while on the road. The term “landscapes,” as applied to photography, covers a broad range of subject matter, from wilderness majesty to urban architecture. We enjoy “natural” landscapes, concentrating on the grandeur of sky, land and water typically found in our parks and farmland. The mountains, forests, deserts and grasslands that house the birds and wildlife we constantly try to ferret out and photograph are also a treasure trove of natural beauty that can be captured creatively during all seasons. Although searching for and capturing striking scenery certainly adds a new dimension to our travels, especially during dawn and dusk when we await the inevitable stir of activity, the downside is the amount of scouting and subsequent computer time that must be devoted to producing quality landscape images. Nonetheless, we’ve found the demanding composition, exposure and post-processing techniques that pervade this genre has transformed how we look through the viewfinder, bringing a totally new perspective to the other aspects of our photography experience. It’s been an epiphany for us, helping immeasurably to improve how we understand and tackle bird and wildlife photography, particularly with decisions regarding composition and depth of field. As you have seen throughout this site, our approach is to stress the basics: positioning for light and backdrop; utilizing specific equipment features; taking the best exposure possible; and, developing a productive workflow process. Natural landscape photography demands all of the same attributes, with one major exception. This is absolutely a computer based genre, dominated by software designed to transform your exposures into an art-form. Many would argue that these programs simply elevate contrast and color to unrealistic levels. Whatever your perspective, composing and enhancing an image to create an effect that shouts “wow” is the end game. Software drives the process. If you’re not computer literate, don’t despair. This synopsis takes you through the “basics” and will get you underway effortlessly, producing quality output in no time. The only requirements are your ability to recognize a great scene and to cultivate the means to transform its potential. Successful natural landscape photographers are artists, knowing well ahead of time what locations will divulge eye pleasing images. They also understand the need to communicate a mood. What emotions did the scene evoke to compel the photographer to try and capture its essence? It’s a great pastime, filled with creative potential that is simply limitless. So dig in, enjoy yourself and don’t let the technology get the better of you. The commands to create pleasing output are easy to understand and implement. Releasing your creative potential is simply a matter of mastering the basics.

There are a few provisos though. Before you begin to release all those creative juices, natural landscape photography demands a fair amount of planning. Stunning images don’t usually jump out of the woodwork! Finding a good location, determining where to position for best light, deciding what time of day or season will produce the most dramatic results and dealing with the vagaries of Mother Nature are a formidable number of variables to try and control. Although light can be handled with filters or techniques such as High Dynamic Range, there is really nothing that can be done about the weather. Even a slight morning breeze can ruin a placid lake reflection for days. In summary, it’s best to know your location and work the potential but recognize from the outset that it can be a very frustrating waiting game.

The basic objective of all natural landscape photography is one of communicating mood. All photographers who participate in this genre struggle with communication issues in terms of how to accurately portray their feelings at the time of taking an exposure. As this is essentially an art form, at least at the professional level, your first task will be to decide how you wish to portray an image in terms of connecting with a viewer. Is your intent simply descriptive or are you bent on a more interpretative approach? Although composition is certainly a prime factor in helping to translate an emotion, beginners really suffer from an uncontrollable desire to overuse the dizzying array of digital enhancement tools now available. Keeping it simple is the best approach to creating a “wow” factor as enhancement can take on almost cartoon proportions if not undertaken with some realistic intent in mind. The best way to come to terms with this issue is to spend time assessing the output of photographers who successfully sell their output. This provides the most expedient way to develop composition, tone and color enhancement skills that will help with your development early on. Throughout this synopsis, we will list a cross section of print and online material that we have found useful in getting underway.

We didn’t change our camera bodies as they were already fully featured and capable of executing the exposure techniques that digital landscape photography demands. Features such as mirror lockup, auto exposure bracketing, timers and provision for an external shutter release are essential. Our current lens selection was also adequate for the job as we already used a combination of wide angle zoom for various bird and wildlife situations (16-35mm, 24-105mm and 70-200mm). We did add a Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5 – 5.6L IS USM as we shoot separately and didn’t want to argue over what was in the bag. However, this is where our equipment good fortune stopped. Landscapes are much easier to capture using a ball head with a built in level. After agonizing over the many choices available, we decided that Really Right Stuff had the best solution, a ball head (BH-55 PCL) that incorporates an integral clamp (MPR-CL) designed specifically for easy panorama setup, both accommodating a custom L-Plate that matched our camera body that facilitates a quick Arca-Swiss type change from landscape to portrait mode and back.

Filters were also a nightmare to research. Fortunately Cokin have an integrated solution using an inexpensive plastic holder. We use the 77mm attachment and purchased the P-Series 2 and 3 stop grey graduated neutral density filters with an additional circular polarizer to get us underway. This is a must system as it accommodates filter “stacking” for situations with high contrast and the need to alter color saturation. Notwithstanding, our experience to date suggests that techniques such as High Dynamic Range described below largely eliminates the need for filters and in many respects produces much better results. However, as filters do have several practical applications, we carry a small selection with us. A polarizing filter, for example, is absolutely essential to control specular highlights in water or to stop down to create a soft or "gauze" effect in creek and waterfall images. We use a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, a multi-purpose polarizing and "stop-down" filter that is an absolute gem.

Other than beefing up our equipment and having more to carry, we found it extremely beneficial to study the genre prior to taking an actual exposure as the techniques are radically different from those employed for bird and wildlife photography. Here we had the good fortune to meet a group of serious landscape photographers dedicated to sharing their time and experience in the field free of charge. We spent a week with the “Old Turnips” (a rather unflattering description of their age and talents) in the Palouse farmland of eastern Washington. Although they are a small group and relatively unknown, they certainly have the potential to create a movement that would benefit many beginners who lack the resources to engage experience and knowledge first hand. Sharing at this level is a rare commodity indeed!

Here are some things to consider that may be of benefit before you take the landscape plunge. To begin, most creative natural landscape photography is about utilizing side light to capture a static image displaying visible contrasts using a very slow shutter speed at low ISO. It’s all about translating the tone and texture of a scene, either through straight description or some level of interpretation. Here any camera shake must be eliminated, demanding the use of features such as mirror lock and timers with an external shutter release. This is so unlike bird and wildlife photography, which usually deals with motion and the need for well-placed natural or artificial light. The photography and computer techniques employed here also allow you to deal with a much wider dynamic range of light, bringing an understanding of just how to manipulate the limitations of the digital sensor to produce good results. As with all digital photography, producing a good result demands a good exposure, one which maximizes the tonal range captured. This means working diligently to “push” the histogram as far right as possible without clipping at the extremes to ensure that the amount of shadow and highlight detail information is maximized. Filters, either polarizing or neutral density, can help deal with lighting variance while techniques such as Exposure Blending or High Dynamic Range can handle a wider dispersion. A polarizing filter saturates color and is effective only with side and top light. A graduated neutral density filter helps to tone down high-contrast segments of an image and is effective only at focal lengths shorter than roughly 85mm. Both filters can be “stacked” to resolve specific lighting and color issues. With the growing sophistication of HDR software and the Photo Filter application available in Photoshop, the question must be asked whether filters will continue to play an effective role in digital photography.

You will predominantly use a wide angle zoom lens where the aperture must be stopped down to ensure a good depth of field if a foreground object is used as an anchor or counterpoint in your composition. Lens optics is usually best between F/11 and F/16, your choice of aperture will depend on the depth of field required to ensure the image is sharply focused from front to back. If we are composing a grand vista where depth of field is really not an issue, we generally start at F/11. Here most photographers focus manually at a point roughly one-third to one-half into the composition and take the exposure. Our preferred method is to use Live Mode, first to assess and correct composition, then to optimize the histogram by making a final adjustment to shutter speed. We then zoom and fine tune focus to ensure overall clarity. If a foreground object is employed, we stop down between F/13 and f/22 depending on how close the object is to the lens. Here the concept of hyperfocal point comes into play. This is really nothing more complicated than ensuring everything in a composition, from foreground object to background, is sharply focused. We've tried using charts developed specifically for the Lens Multiplication Factor of the sensor specific to the camera body being used, adjusted for the aperture and focal length choices of the image composition. The objective is to adjust the lens meter to the distance recommended in the chart to achieve optimum sharpness. This produces decent results but using Live Mode and the Depth Of Field preview kicks it up a notch. Here we set the lens distance meter to infinity, zoom in on the foreground object, depress and hold the Depth Of Field button and focus manually using the display. The closer the foreground object, the higher the aperture setting. Reversing the process, we zoom in on the background and check for clarity. It takes some experience choosing the correct aperture but produces better results than relying on hyperfocal length charts as the lens distance meter is poorly calibrated and in some instances difficult to set exactly.

Finding a location is hard enough but being there at the right time takes some planning and visual skill. Perhaps the hardest aspect of natural landscape photography is imagining how the dynamics of light can potentially create radically different color and shadow intensity at a location during different times of the day, year or under changing weather conditions. You can resolve some of the variables by determining where and when the sun rises and sets, analyzing its angle and positioning to optimize shadow contrast and color hue. You can also scan weather forecasts or visit during specific seasons when conditions are likely to produce the robust image you are looking for. In other words, knowing your location and being able to visualize the image you are looking for is far better than showing up anytime and hoping that serendipity will bless your presence! Side light is almost always a prerequisite as front light produces dull tones with little texture. Contrast and color are inseparable and the force behind how you translate the form of any natural landscape into a robust image. Composition is equally important although you can soon become a slave to the standard “rule of thirds” that serves as a basic reference point for creating a focal point to an image. Keying on the “convergence” of lines and regular configurations is a good tactic as is the use of foreground objects that produce depth and create a sense of presence for the viewer. Distractions are to be avoided, the tenet being to keep it simple, relying on the basic elements of the scene to translate your mood. Try experimenting with a different lens to see how the perspective changes. A good overall lens choice is one that combines wide angle and zoom such as the Canon EF 24-105mm described above. A good primer on all the above elements, particularly composition alternatives is The “National Audubon Society Guide To Landscape Photography” by Tom Fitzharris.

Generalities, of course, often produce mediocre results. The use of apertures greater than f/16 can result in “diffraction,” either some or significant softening of objects within the focal plane. As such, achieving great sharpness requires some judgement as you try and balance the elements that comprise the foreground and background when harshly stopping down. Experimenting is the key.

There are so many techniques designed to alter the look of an image that it’s hard to know where to start. They range from a simple change of color temperature to the manipulation of multiple image files. Although you will recognize the usual post-processing tools for adjusting tonal variations and color, there are specific workflow routines that form the mainstay of natural landscape photography. Here the “big five” post-processing techniques are Cut And Paste Replacement, Exposure Blending, High Dynamic Range, Panorama Stitching and Monochrome Conversion. As these can often morph into quite complex workflow, the first task is to understand their underlying rationale and how to implement the “basics” of each using a simple and straightforward approach.

Cut and paste is usually reserved for creating a more dynamic sky. Here landscape photographers keep a file of cloud images that can be utilized for this purpose. The technique involves opening two equal sized images in Photoshop, one with the sky to be replaced and the other with a suitable replacement cloud formation. Select the latter and outline the cloud segment to be used as the replacement using Select All, Transform Selection (left click and drag the perimeter horizontal boxes to complete the desired segment) then Enter and Edit>Copy to complete the crop. Now, Edit>Paste this segment onto the other image and use the Move tool to drag it into the desired replacement position. Close the original cloud image as the selected segment now becomes Layer 1 on top of the Background Layer of the landscape image. Highlight Layer 1 in the Layers palette and reduce Opacity to zero. Highlight the Background Layer and using the Magic Wand, select the portion of the sky you want to replace, usually along a well defined ridge line. Now use Select>Inverse to isolate the foreground. Although it may not be required, you might want to try and soften the ridge line using Select>Modify>Feather with a radius of 1 to 3 pixels. Edit>Copy the foreground selection, highlight Layer 1 and Edit>Paste to form a new Layer 2. Finally, highlight Layer 1, return Opacity to 100 percent and adjust the tonal gradation and color of the new cloud formation to suit the original image.

Exposure blending is an equally easy technique to implement. It is usually reserved for situations where a filter is an ineffective solution for addressing unusually high contrast. Using a tripod, the task is to take two correct exposures, one for the shadows and the other for the highlights, then blend the results in Photoshop using the Layers and Layer Mask functionality. First, open both exposures and highlight the darker image. Photoshop will align the images automatically if you Shift hold the Move tool while dragging the darker image over the lighter image with the mouse, releasing first the mouse button then the Shift key to complete the task. Close the darker image. Now open the Layers palette and select Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal All. Layer 1 will appear. Press ‘B’ to select a paint brush, adjusting for size and softness (to start, try Brush Hardness: 20%, Master Diameter: 600 pixels). Ensure the foreground color in the tool bar is set to black and the white box in Layer 1 is highlighted. With the Mode set to Normal, paint to reveal the highlight details from the Background Layer (try Opacity 50% and Flow 100%). Experiment with a small area and Undo if you are not satisfied, changing brush hardness, size, opacity and flow of application until a good result is achieved. You can lighten areas by changing the foreground color to white. Once you are satisfied, use Layers>Flatten and continue with your normal post-processing workflow.

Light on any subject produces a dynamic range as measured by the luminance values from the darkest to the lightest areas. The ability to perceive this range varies by receptor. The eye can interpret more tonality and detail than a digital camera sensor whose limits are dictated by its ability to forestall clipping at the lighting extremes. From a photography perspective, High Dynamic Range (HDR) is defined as the techniques used to capture and present as much of this range as possible given the limitations of the technology being used. This entails two processes, one with the camera using exposure “bracketing” and the other with computer software such as Photoshop Merge To HDR or Photomatix Pro that “integrates” multiple exposures which then undergo a tone mapping or exposure fusion process that creates a 16-bit TIFF ready for normal post-processing. Although the techniques are simple to understand, the implementation process is riddled with subtleties that, if adhered to, will ensure the creation of pleasing results. It's an extremely iterative process. Photography technology has always imposed limits on the dynamic range of what can be captured and displayed. The rapid evolution of HDR is pushing these limits and will undoubtedly redefine the landscape genre in terms of allowing photographers to more realistically portray and communicate their vision of the natural world. For a beginner, there couldn’t be a better time to start!

In the past, landscape photographers have tackled scenes exhibiting dramatic lighting by using either neutral density filters or employing exposure blending techniques on multiple files using layers and masks to accomplish targeted enhancements. There was a downside to both as filters often proved unworkable and blending was very time consuming. HDR addresses both issues as the bracketed images are taken without a filter and the process is quick and simple to implement with fairly understandable and easy to use controls. It can be used for both single frame and stitched panoramic images. The process maps the full range of luminance using local contrast adjustments that emphasize color and detail, producing a composite that noticeably enhances tonal transitions and contrast. What you get is an image with more “punch” that can now be worked as an 8- or 16-bit file in Photoshop.

The term High Dynamic Range can be interpreted as the ability to capture and display lighting extremes with more visual accuracy. The trick is to acquire as much of the luminance information as possible. You do this by taking a series of over-exposed and under-exposed images with settings sufficient to cover the entire dynamic range of the scene from shadows to highlights. Typically +/– 2 to 3 stops will do the job, depending on the capability of your camera body, using the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) feature. So when do you employ HDR techniques? The obvious answer is on relatively static scenes that exhibit a broad range of luminance values such as bright skies bordering darker composition elements. However, you may find HDR is quite effective on reflective surfaces such as snow or on cloud formations where capturing detail is central to the vision you are trying to portray. Experimenting is the key and you will soon discover which scenes produce the most dramatic results.

Now, on to the nuances! Camera setup is all important, especially stability as the HDR process translates pixels “one-to-one” from each frame, requiring virtually prefect alignment in order to reduce the number of registration errors. As such, your camera should be mounted on a tripod and head which is firmly placed on the ground. Vibration can be further reduced by using a remote shutter release, activating the mirror lockup feature, turning image stabilization off and in some instances, by placing a weight over the camera and lens such as a bean bag. Images should be captured in Aperture Priority Mode in RAW format using automatic bracketing and manual focus where ISO (set as low as possible), white balance (set to daylight) and aperture are held constant, leaving shutter speed as the sole determinant to obtaining a decent base histogram. As the light may change rapidly, it is important to automate the process as much as possible, keeping the number of steps to a minimum. Determining the number and interval of exposures requires an assessment of the scenes dynamic range, including what amount of detail you wish to capture at the extremes. As with all photography, practice and experience will dictate how you proceed. A good rule of thumb is that intervals of +/- 1 to 3 stops is usually sufficient if the sun is not in the frame. It’s best to set ISO as low as conditions such as movement will permit. Use the Live Mode histogram to detect clipping, adjust shutter speed accordingly and take the three exposures. You might want to consider taking five images if the sun is in the frame and the lighting is extreme. If this is the case, follow the above procedure but change the AEB sequence to five (most modern fully featured camera bodies take 3, 5 or 7 images automatically). Although you would intuitively think that more data is better, we have found that there is little difference between a three and five interval exposure sequence in terms of detail clarity in the final result. Although this is a generality and applies to scenes that do not exhibit wide lighting extremes, we’ve found that three exposures usually work fine, one for shadows, one for highlights and one that captures as much of the dynamic range as is feasible. The trick is to ensure the “tails” of the shadow and highlight exposures do not touch the end points of the histogram (in other words, there is no clipping present in either exposure, ensuring the full dynamic range of the scene has been captured).

How many images should be taken? Too many and you risk camera shake and ghosting from minor movement in the scene. Too few and you may not capture the full dynamic range of the scene. The quick answer is to determine the lighting extremes by over and under exposing for shadows and highlights until clipping is eliminated. Exposures within these limits are part of the dynamic range of the scene. Exposures outside can be eliminated. If the range is fairly wide and you take too few images the result will undoubtedly include noise and blotched areas. We generally prefer intervals of 1 to 3 stops in scenes demonstrating moderate lighting extremes. Inevitably, noise free overexposure and fully saturated underexposure is the key.

You are now ready to produce a composite image. As most photographers use Adobe Photoshop for RAW conversion and post-processing, it's a natural step to integrate a sequence of images using Tools>Photoshop>Merge To HDR Pro. Alternately, a standalone program such as PhotomatixPro accomplishes the same task, producing a single 16-bit TIFF ready for post-processing in Photoshop. We don't intend to detail either process here as both programs have been consolidated over time from what used to be a tedious set of choices into a simple "menu-slider" feature set. As software is changing rapidly, we recommend you take an up-to-date tutorial online before trying to find any worthwhile reading material.

Whatever software you ultimately settle on, it is of little use until you understand how to correctly take a series of images that are capable of being “stitched” together seamlessly. The issues here are to ensure the camera is level and that the entrance pupil or “optical center” of the lens is aligned directly over the point of rotation of the tripod. We achieve both by using a nodal slider designed specifically for panorama photography that is compatible with our Really Right Stuff ball head. It’s a snap to level but a little more difficult to align precisely. This has nothing to do with the hardware setup. It’s more the various iterative methods employed to narrow down the exact center point of the lens. These range from a macro alignment technique using two distant telephone poles to a more precise method utilizing a wire mesh (search “nodal point determination” online for all the many ways you can go about eliminating “parallax” from multiple overlapping images). Fortunately you only have to do this once. We didn’t have much success with the telephone pole method but finally settled on an iteration of our own using vertically parallel near and far objects. We did this in our shop using two broom handles, one black placed next to the white garage door and a second white roughly fifteen feet in front of it. We positioned the lens roughly three feet in front of the white broom on a level tripod and nodal bar. Alignment was fairly easy as the color contrast revealed the slightest movement. We did this for a set of predetermined focal lengths for each zoom wide angle lens we use, noting the exact position on the nodal slider for later reference in the field. This works well for single-row multiple images of landscapes having no foreground complexities. Most programs can adjust for minor alignment deficiencies for images of this type.

To practice, we followed the recommended guidelines for good panorama shooting: endure the lens is positioned at the “nodal point” for the focal length in use; set White Balance to Daylight to avoid any color casts that Auto White Balance may create due to lighting extremes; capture RAW images in Manual Mode; overlap images by 30% to 50%; level the tripod and nodal bar; use mirror lockup on a timed exposure to avoid camera shake; and, focus at the hyperfocal distance for optimum depth of field if any foreground objects are employed in the composition. If you follow these simple rules, stitching is a cinch. Our preferred software is Panorama Factory.

As the key to creating any good image is optimizing the underlying tonal grey gradations, it seems natural that select images may better fit a black and white format than one using color. We're not sure there are any hard and fast rules as to which images qualify, but the use of Lab Color in our workflow certainly affords us the opportunity to visualize the result and helps to recognize those having the potential to produce a truly pleasing work in black and white. Again, what you want to strive for is processing the maximum information with the richest tool set available. As such, we shoot in RAW and desaturate color in Photoshop using the Lightness channel in Lab Color (Image>Mode>Lab Color). An equally good tool is Black and White (Image>Adjustments>Black and White) where specific tones can be darkened or lightened by adjusting the individual color sliders. Global adjustments can be easily handled with Levels and Curves. For local adjustments to dark and light areas, you must resort to the Dodge and Burn tools. We say resort as the process can be destructive. A better approach is to create your own tools using Fill layers. Create a new layer, select Edit>Fill using 50% Grey applied to either Overlay or Soft Light from the blending mode. This is to Dodge or lighten. Repeat the process for a Burn layer to darken. As with Image Blending, choose a large soft brush and ensure the background colors are set to black and white. For local lightening, highlight the Dodge layer, select white as the background color and paint with Opacity set at 20%. To darken, highlight the Burn layer and change the background color to black. Not surprisingly, experimentation is the key to producing a good result. Use single strokes, Undo if dissatisfied and resize until you strike the right balance in the target area. Repeat for each local area you wish to adjust, then Layer>Flatten to finish. For those nostalgic types, we understand there are techniques to apply sepia toning but have yet to research how this is performed. We’ll update this section when time permits.

Although filters were a mainstay for film photography, we really began asking ourselves whether they have a role in the digital world. For example, why try and reduce light with a graduated neutral density filter when techniques such as Exposure Blending and High Dynamic Range now deal effectively with lighting extremes? Why use warming or cooling filters when a simple post-processing tool can change light temperature or produce a “canned” filter effect? The quick answer is that they still have a critical but somewhat diminished part to play. A circular polarizing filter can effectively eliminate reflective highlights whereas trying to deal with them using post-processing software is difficult if not downright impossible. We find graduated neutral density filters are useful for reducing the number of images required for an HDR merge. Stacking a full neutral density and circular polarizing filter is effective in motion scenes such as moving water where the objective is to produce a surreal or “gauzy” look. Circular polarizing filters that color highlights such as the Cokin blue-yellow or the Singh-Ray Gold-n-Blue are still widely used (both produce robust results, but White Balance must be set to “daylight” in-camera and the obvious color cast created needs to be adjusted during RAW conversion with the grey eyedropper applied to areas of neutral tone until a more realistic look is achieved). If all this sounds complex, nothing could be further from the truth. The Cokin system is a simple filter holder with a threaded ring adapted for the lens size in use (we use the P-holder with a 77mm ring). You also don’t need a bag full of filters. Start with a grey graduated neutral density filter (P121) and a sprocket circular polarizer (P164). Besides the Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, we also carry a HOYA Pro 1 circular polarizer which threads directly to the lens for scenes where we want to produce more saturated colors or try and remove reflective highlights (you should be aware that a circular polarizer is only effective for side or top light conditions).