Landscape Photography Rules of Thumb
Vishpala Kadam, Photographer / Writer
October 24th, 2016
Landscape photography, in my opinion, is being over-simplified by many of us, the photographers. In today’s era of social networking and digital photography, traveling has become frequent and abundance. And so are the opportunities to shoot landscapes. But beautiful destinations and scenery alone can not make a good photo. It needs to be coupled with photographer’s vision to turn it into an awesome landscape photograph. Lack of vision might lead to, in Ansel Adam’s words, a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. Here are few rules of thumb, so to say, some of which I learned from some of the great photographers and some on my own, which I thought would be helpful in your journey of landscape photography.
I always put more emphasis on artistic side of the photography than technicality and gear. For me; vision, composition and perspective takes precedence over f-stop, shutter speed and choice of lens. But since most of the frequently asked questions are on technicality and gear, I am going to start with that today!
Cathedral rock BW
Photo by Vishpala Kadam
Rules of Thumb in Technical Domain
Choice of Lens
Go as wide as possible, but be mindful of details. Use wide angle/ fisheye lenses (10 mm to 24 mm on full frame body) to capture a wide open landscape, something like what I did to photograph Yosemite upper fall. Waterfall is one of my points of interests and it looks big enough in this photo. To get slightly more details in, go for 35mm. You can go further up to 50mm when getting details is more important than showing wide open landscape. When I was shooting snow cladded trees in northern Alaska, I wanted to show the details of tree and layers of snow and wasn’t getting enough of it with 24mm wide angle lens, so I decided to shoot with 50mm.
To get crisp and sharp landscape photo, always shoot at f11 or more. Lowest possible boundary is f8, don’t go below that. Aperture is also tightly coupled with foreground and focus. More details on that in ‘Focus’ section below. We all love star effect in sun at sunrise or sunset, how to do that? Shoot at f16 or f22. Camera will automatically capture the sun with star effect.
A good thumb of rule is to shoot at faster shutter speeds than 1/(focal lens) of second. So if you are shooting with 50mm lens, do not shoot slower than 1/50 sec when shooting handheld. This rule helps even shooting with tripod on a windy day! Now let’s talk about slower shutter speeds to make silky waters. Use anywhere between 1/4 sec to 2 sec if you want to show patterns in flowing water, like ocean waves, waterfalls. Use more than 4 sec if you want completely silky water without any patterns.
Where to focus?? Should I use manual focus or Auto? This is another most frequently asked question. If you are using DSLR, most of the times auto focus would suffice. If you have a foreground which is closer than 10 feet, then auto focus might not work. It will either make foreground or background out of focus. Use higher f-numbers (f-16, f-22) that would allow you to get foreground and background in focus at a time. If higher f-numbers are not working, use focus stacking technique and merge photos in Photoshop if you want everything in focus.
Yosemite Falls Fisheye Reflection
Photo by Vishpala Kadam
Rules of Thumb in Artistic Side
Talking of composition, the first rule of thumb that comes to mind is ‘Rule of Thirds’. This rule suggests to put your point of interest at 1/3 or 2/3 points when the photo is divided into 3X3 grid. In other words, do not put your point of interest/ main subject in the center of the photo.
On the similar lines, do not place horizon at the middle of the frame unless you need symmetry, like the in Yosemite fall reflection photo. Place it slightly below the if sky is more interesting and place it above if land is more interesting.
Usually everyone is used to see the world from eyelevel. If you choose a different angle, you get to show a different perspective. That photo attracts your viewer. So lay down on the ground and look up in the sky or climb up the rock and look down – capture photo from different angle.
Look for the good light, possibly the Golden Hour! Golden/ magic hour is typically the half an hour span before and after sunrise and sunset when light soft & slanted. Magic hour light is the best to shoot landscapes. But do not worry much if you are stuck with overcast skies. It could be the best light to make black and white landscapes! I shot this photo of cathedral rock when light was dull and shooting conditions were far from ideal. But it still made a good black and white landscape.
Lastly, I would say rules of thumb are useful 90% of the times. Be ready to create your own new rules other 10% of the times. Happy shooting!
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