Top 10 Landscape Photography Tips for Summer and Fall

Top 10 Landscape Photography Tips for Summer and Fall

Landscapes are one of my favourite summer/fall subjects. Here are 10 of my Top Tips to help you get better landscape images. Click on each of the images below to see the info on the Gear and Exposure Settings I used to create them. The Feature Image: “An Ocean of Romance” was shot at Seal Rocks Beach, Australia on my Nikon D3 with 24-70mm f/2.8G lens,  f/13 at 1/2 second, ISO 400.

1 – Shoot the “Sweet Light”

Early Morning or Late Evening

Good lighting is a key element to getting an outstanding photograph. When shooting landscapes the quality of light is generally better in the early morning and late evening because the light is lower and warmer. This time of day will generally create more pleasing shadows, contrast and texture along with more vibrant colours in your imagery. Avoid shooting around noon when sun is generally harshest and flattest.

Early morning may bring fog, mist on the water and maybe even some wildlife to complement your landscape image. Mornings generally have less haze and less wind and that might help you get a clearer shot. Sunsets can be epic and offer wonderful lighting opportunities as well like my image “Fiery Skies over Three Sisters Mountains” (right) where I capture the alpenglow on the mountains with moody clouds and fiery red skies above.

Fiery Skies over Three Sisters Mountain – Nikon D3X with Nikon 24-70mm lens | f/10 at 1/125 sec

2 – Get to Know Your Gear and Settings

Achieve Excellence In-Camera

Get to know your equipment, when you get a new camera or piece of gear test out your settings and find out what works best for you.  My favourite camera to shoot landscapes with is my Nikon D800E because of the incredible detail I can capture at 36 megapixels.  Here are some settings that I use to get fantastic results in-camera and save me a ton of time editing later:

First of all set your camera to shoot RAW so that you can record the full capabilities of your camera.  You can use Nikon View NX2 or your proprietary camera manufacturer’s software to retain and adjust these settings later on the computer.

Next, adjust your in-camera Picture Control Settings and crank up the saturation, sharpness and sometimes even the contrast depending on my subject. This immediately makes a HUGE difference in most landscape images and adds some extra sizzle to those brilliant summer and fall colours.

When shooting I generally meter for the intensity in the sky and expose for the highlights.  Unlike film, there is more exposure latitude in the shadows of a digital file and and you can bring out that detail with software later. I usually set my highlights to flash in my camera display settings.  I look for a few specular highlights when evaluating my images and make sure no light areas where I want detail are blown out.  Then I know that I have pushed the Dynamic Range of my image to the limit.

Nikon’s D-Lighting setting also works great to get more detail in the mid-tone to shadow area. I usually leave the D-Lighting set on low or normal. If you don’t have this feature you can try reducing the contrast when shooting in difficult light and with dark contrasting subjects.

Finally, noise can be an issue on most cameras at ISO sensitivities over 800 ISO. In hand-held situations where you are shooting at a higher ISO set your High ISO Noise Reduction settings to Low or whatever setting works best for your camera.

Maui Sunset– Nikon D3X with Nikon 24-70mm lens| f/11 at 1/200 sec | 200 ISO
Nikon D800E – My 1st Choice for Landscape Shooting
Adjust Your Saturation, Contrast and Sharpness Using Nikon’s PICTURE CONTROL SETTINGS

3 – Use Your Polarizer Sparingly

Only in Situations where you want to Reduce Glare or Reflection

I often see photographers overusing their Circular Polar Polarizing filter when out shooting landscapes by leaving it on their camera all of the time.  The benefits of a polarizer are that they can reduce glare or reflections and can darken your sky when used correctly. However you also lose 2 stops of light which can be a major disadvantage especially if your shooting hand-held.   They also can produce an uneven darkening effect in the sky on wider angle lenses.

Most newer lenses have very good coatings already which increase contrast and reduce some reflection.  I rarely use a polarizer and have a high quality UV filter on my lens at all times to protect my investment.  If my sky needs to be darkened I use Nikon Capture NX2 or Nik’s Viveza to darken the sky perfectly and evenly with colour control points.

Framing this image with the spring flowers helps draw you in to the scene, further enhancing the impact of this landscape. Nikon D3, 14-24mm lens, 1/160 second, f/13, ISO 250

4 – Bring a Tripod

Slow Down Your Shutter Speed, Shoot In-Camera HDR, Time Lapses + more

Carrying a tripod everywhere can be painful but it is an indispensable tool when it comes to shooting amazing landscapes. Tripods are a necessity for shooting any slower that 1/30 of a second for even the steadiest hand. They allow you to settle in to your image, adjust composure, shoot, correct and shoot again until the image is perfect

Tripods also assist you to shoot at almost any combination of ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed with great results.  So you can set your ISO to its lowest best setting (least noise) and aperture to the desired depth of field, meter for your sky and let your shutter speed be the adjustable variable to get the correct exposure.

You can also use the tripod to keep your camera still for long exposures like startrails or night shots but also when you want slow down your exposure for movement like I have in this image of Botanical Beach, Victoria, where I dragged the shutter for 1/10 of a second to create the bursting movement in the water.  Instantly after this exposure I shielded the camera and saved it from this rogue wave.

Some new cameras like my Nikon D-800E have the ability to shoot HDR (High Dynamic Range) images right in-camera. It takes more than one image at different exposures and blends them together to expand your dynamic range.  This can be very useful when you have a brighter sky and darker foreground and you want to have detail in both.   For more instruction on HDR setup see my blog article on In-Camera HDR HERE.

Finally many new cameras have the ability to shoot time lapses right in-camera.  These can look incredible and are worth experimenting with.  Capture an entire one hour sunset in 20 seconds with all of the saturation and still techniques mentioned in this article.  For best results prefocus and then set focus to manual and exposure setting to aperture priority so that you get nice smooth video.

Nikon D3 with 24-70mm lens at f/22 at 1/10 sec | 100 ISO
Manfrotto – My Tripod of Choice

5 – Reduce Vibrations

This Ensures Your Images are Perfectly Sharp

I have found that the higher the megapixels of the camera you are using the greater the likelihood of vibrations or camera-shake showing up in your images because there is so much more detail to work with.  Additionally the longer the lens focal length the more possibility of shake.

In order to reduce vibrations when trying to capture the perfect landscape shot I would use a tripod but also reduce vibrations made when you press the trigger by using a cable release or wireless remote like my favourite Nikon WR-R10 + WR-A10 Wireless Remote Adapter shown (right).  You can also use the built-in exposure delay mode available in most new camera settings.

If your lens has a VR (vibration reduction) function than turn it on in NORMAL mode for sharper images.  VR may have erratic results in certain instances that have moving elements like water.  Review your images, zoom in to 100% and evaluate if it’s making a positive difference.

If you have to shoot hand-held then try to shoot faster than 1/30 of a second with a wide angle lens and 1/250 of a second with any focal length over 70mm.

Nikon WR-R10 + WR-A10 Wireless Remote Adapter

6 – Paint with Light

Create Amazing Night Images

One of my favourite techniques is to paint a scene with light in the darkness. You will have to put your camera on a tripod and use a long exposure while painting the subject with different light sources like flashlights, glow sticks, LED’s, coloured gels, flash etc. This technique will help you get dramatic results with vibrant colours and it can be a lot of fun – especially if you share the moment with friends and get them involved.

I would suggest starting with a 20 or 30 second exposure with your camera on a tripod at 100-250 ISO.  Set your aperture depending on the depth of field you want to achieve.  I suggest f/8 to begin.  I exposed the image (right) for 180 seconds using a special cable release and used the Princeton Tec headlamp below to paint the waves with light in a swirling pattern while flashing my Nikon Speedlight several times at full power to the left of the image to illuminate the scene.

Princeton Tec Apex Headlamp and Nikon SB-910 Speedlight
Mystical Moon Rise Over Botanical Beach – Nikon D3 with 24-70mm lens | f/8 at 180sec | 800ISO
Coloured Gels
Coloured Gels

7 – Use White Balance

A Powerful and Non-Destructive Filter

I often use my white balance settings as “lens filters” to manually adjust my white balance to warm or cool my landscape images which can enhance the feeling and mood. I can create a nice warmth by setting the camera to “cloudy” white balance instead of “daylight”. If you want to go even warmer, use the “shade” setting. You can use this technique to get a really warm sunrise or sunset, or cool down the colour temperature of your image using the “tungsten” or other custom settings. If you are shooting RAW, then you can always change these settings back after the shoot – so you can experiment without fear.

Below you can see the same landscape scene shot with tungsten and cloudy white balance.  I then changed my Picture Control Setting to Monochrome with an Orange Filter to get these very different looks right in-camera.

Monochrome, Cloudy and Tungsten White Balance

8 -Mindfully Frame Your Image

Keep Your Horizon Line Straight

Creatively framing your images in-camera can add a tremendous impact.  Look for objects like clouds and rocks that naturally give a border/crop to your image and draw you in.  Try making the  focal point of interest off-centre and use the rule of thirds to create a harmonious composition.  You can also try placing the horizon line a third of the way down from the top or bottom of the frame in stead of in the middle.

Creatively framing your images in-camera can add a tremendous impact.  Look for objects like clouds and rocks that naturally give a border/crop to your image and draw you in.  Try making the  focal point of interest off-centre and use the rule of thirds to create a harmonious composition.  You can also try placing the horizon line a third of the way down from the top or bottom of the frame in stead of in the middle.

In order to get nice straight horizon lines in my photos, I love using the “virtual horizon” and “grid view” features on my Nikon cameras. These really help to get that perfectly straight horizon line. I always leave grid view turned on which shows a grid in my viewfinder display.  This is really helpful to align with any horizon line and with composition as well.  I also use a tool called virtual horizon to see my camera level in live-view mode on the display screen at the back of my camera.  If your on a tripod or the camera is low, live-view is a great tool to help compose and align your frame.  My favourite setting is to set the function button on my Nikon D800E and D4 to show me my camera virtual horizon levels through the viewfinder.  With this feature I can switch from exposure meter to vertical and horizontal camera alignment meter and get perfectly straight horizons with ease.

If your camera doesn’t have these features try an inexpensive bubble level that can mount to your camera hotshoe.

I framed this sunset image with the clouds and grass. Vermillion Lake Sunset – Nikon D3X with Nikon 24-70mm lens| f/9 at 1/100 sec | 250 ISO
Virtual Horizon In-Camera Level

9 – Create Depth

Using Colour, Contrast + Foreground / Middleground / Background in Your Shots

Depth is a another key ingredient of many great landscape images. We can create depth by colour contrast like the cool water and warm bright flowers in the image (right).  Lighting choice and the use of highlights and shadows also create depth in any landscape. For Black and White images we can also create depth with the use of contrast, shapes and textures.

Depth of perspective can be create by establishing a distict foreground, middleground and background in your images.  In order to have these elements all in focus you will want to shoot with plenty of depth of field.   However a lot of photographers have the misconception that you should shoot at f/22 or your maximum aperture to get the best images.  It is true that the higher the f-stop the more depth of field you get but most lenses will produce a much softer and poorer image at these high apertures.  I usually shoot between f/8 and f/13 to get the best combination of depth of field and sharpness.  Test out your lens and see for yourself what apertures it performs best at.

Sunshine Meadows in Bloom – Nikon D2X with 17-35mm lens | f/8 at 250 sec | 100 ISO

10 – Don’t Pack Up Too Early

When the Sun Goes Down Your Camera Sees More than You Do

Many photographers pack up and head home right after the sun goes down.  However I have found that sometimes magic starts to happen 10 minutes or so after the sun sets and the real powerful colours in the sky begin to display.  You may see bright pink/red hues emerge and if you have some interesting clouds your sky may become electric!

Meter for the sky and allow your foreground to turn to a silhouette or illuminate it with flash or other mixed light sources.  Eventually the light in the sky will dull and the overall image exposure will become more even.  Stick it out a little longer, set up your tripod if you haven’t already, play with your white balance and keep creating.  When it doesn’t look interesting through your eyes anymore the camera can still capture some fantastic colours with a long exposure.  You may be amazed with what you get.  You may even stay out all night.

Nikon D2X with 17-35mm lens | f/5.6 at 1/10 sec | 100 ISO
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