Sometimes in our lives, we are greeted by the sublime. ‘Sublime’ is today used as a fancy term for something aesthetically unique and pleasing, but in the original philosophical context, ‘the sublime’ means something that is beyond beautiful: beauty pleases our senses, the sublime object is so grand in scale that it overwhelms our senses altogether. Not only does it inspire awe in us, but it also humbles us with the knowledge of how really tiny individuals we are before its proud grandiloquence. When you look out of the fiftieth-floor balcony to see the dusk Hong Kong skyline stretched out before a concomitance of violet cloudlets, or perhaps the mythology-rich divine confluence of two rivers of two different colors at the wake of a historical village of an ancient priest community, its sheer vastness staggers you. It is so much to take in that it is difficult to frame it sometimes. If you had the right camera, and the knowledge of how to tame such wild, grand designs, you could try your hand. Here are 14 tips to improve your landscape photography skills.
(1) The right tools.
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Before you start improving your craftsmanship, it is always important to assess whether you have the right tools for the job. As for the camera, there are two chief criteria. The first one is that you need a good sensor; of course, this one goes without saying. Many bridge cameras (also called compact cams) come with good zoom lenses and a lot of manual user control opportunities at an affordable price. Sony has some compact models that can contend toe to toe against the best in town with its picture quality. But these usually have weaker sensors than the DSLR or mirrorless counterparts, so if you can go for the SLR, always do. The other major factor is a wide dynamic range. It is quite likely you have at least heard of HDR. What it functionally purports to do is simulate human vision by applying a similar adaptive filter. Any photo dealing with clouds, for example, gets an immediate boost in its contrast and drama if your viewfinder has good dynamic range imaging. Now factoring in these three points, there are still a wide variety of selections that you can choose from. For reference, we recommend Canon EOS 6D Mk II it comes with a 26.2 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. Infamously, you cannot capture usual 30fps 4k video with it, but here’s the thing. Don’t tell anyone, but you can capture 4k in its time-lapse mode with the huge sensor.
(2) Consider getting a tripod.
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Having a small aperture implies longer shutter speeds, in which case stillness will be difficult to retain without having to resort to a tripod. As a bonus, you can now shoot all those perfect time-lapse videos you saw on Discovery and always wanted to do! Also, consider adding in some kind of remote shutter release mechanism for more convenience.
(3) Determine the right settings.
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Here are the ideal settings: The mode should be Evaluative. You want an aperture of no more than f/16 and an ISO of 100. You can then adjust the exposure if necessary. In many cases, these will necessitate a very low shutter speed, but we have already addressed that issue.
(4) Maximize depth of field and sharpness.
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With the low aperture, the depth of field should be good on the get-go, but always opt for a manual focus mode and then set the focus point to approximately one-third of the horizon – and note that this is a third of the distance, the depth, and not the camera frame. If you have some experience down the line, you already have a feel for it and it will be easy to find the right focus. One issue is that f/16 can mean lens diffraction, and that means your photo will be slightly less sharp, in which case you can take it up to f/22. After you have done finding the aforementioned focus distance, tinker with it a little until both the foreground and the background is as sharp as you would like.
(5) Use a wide-angle lens.
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This should be fairly obvious. Wide angle lenses are a godsend when you want to cover vast expanses. On a further note, take time with adjusting your angle, as you will be surprised how much the lighting and composition can change with some variance in angle.
(6) A sense of motion.
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Capturing movement can be the mark that distinguishes your photo – take it from decent to extraordinary. This goes double for shots that have water in the foreground, like a rushing stream on boulders, or surf hitting the sand. You generally want a long exposure and a longer shutter speed. Use shutter-priority mode, or aperture-priority mode in select cases. Your sensor will have to shoulder the impact of much more additional light. Therefore you either need a filter, which is something of a band-aid or for the best case scenario you want a time of day with less light. This is not to undermine the neutral-density filter, though, because ND filters can come in handy under most circumstances.
(7) Mind the foreground.
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Outside the technicalities, one reliable way to create a sense of scale is to have a point of interest the photo will be structured around – a tree, the symmetrical and towering mountain peak, a distant lake cottage, or even the sun. This rule applies to the depth too, except this time around you want a defined object in the foreground. For one, a foreground will add a point of reference (e.g. the contours of a person’s silhouette) from which the viewer will measure the depth, and consequently, the scale. Think a solitary figure (for instance, the figure in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog) that stands in the middle, or to the side of a wide-angle shot. So it is helpful to think about the foreground of your shots and place points of interests as a yardstick that affects the actual landscape more than it would seem.
(8) The sky cares about your photo.
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What we mean is that you should care about the sky too. With a blade sky, you should ensure more coverage for terrain by placing the horizon higher above. But optimally, you want to pick out a moment when the sky is colorful and ornate with a cloud arrangement. The sky is what saves the day when the weather is off. A good example of this is an overcast weather – a scenario that saps all the color and joie de vivre away from the bends of your fantastic valley. But if the sky is anything save for a uniform grey, it will be so full of drama that with the slightest flick of a filter or two you can come out on top with an incredibly moody image. Bottom line? The sky cares about your photo.
(9) Remember your rule of thirds.
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Imagine two parallel lines that separate your image equally and horizontally. Then imagine another two, but vertically. You will end with nine separate cubes. Almost all cameras even come with grids to do this. The rule of three, when thinking the compositional placement of the horizon, advises that you should place the horizon along the first or third section and not in the middle. Of course, there are exceptions, and one of these are:
(10) The element of mirrors.
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We are talking lakes with calm waters – or water bodies large enough from your perspective to create a clean and beautiful reflection. Brownie points for subtle ripples. In these cases, the rule of thirds goes out the window and you can place your horizon right in the middle if you think it looks better that way. Clarity becomes paramount for these shots, so you should definitely use the tripod and the remote shutter. You can get additional help from sharpness filters, but don’t go overboard.
(11) When NV filters aren’t cutting it, use a lens hood.
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This also helps when you are shot is around 10am-4pm and you want to get rid of that pesky lens flare. However, be warned that a lens hood does not work very well if the sun is directly present in your shot.
(12) Lines and perspective.
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It always pays to stick around and explore alternate possibilities. Your options can be limited if you are on rocky ranges, but do utilize whatever space you get to try out setting up shop in different angles to potentially find a better perspective, especially if the foreground is your main anchor. The other thing that eliminates the need for this optimization is if you find a line to anchor your photo. This can be a parapet, a tightrope against the bright and clear sky, or buntings. By structuring your landscape around lines, you hold a greater authority to direct the viewer’s eye.
(13) Polarizing filters.
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Although ND filters are good, you should not necessarily think of it as a rule to be followed everywhere. For an alternative, more subtle color correction, polarize the light to retain a more natural look while still being able to improve and adjust the atmosphere and color tone of your photo.
(14) Use the time of day to your advantage.
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Wait for the ‘golden hour’ when the sky takes up a near-crimson tint and makes everything colorful in its unique way like no other time of day can, don’t abandon the spot and wait for the ‘blue hours’ too, when the sun has just gone down and everything becomes pale and moody with soft blue light.
As closing lines, we should remind you that every rule has its exception. You should take them merely as guidelines to start with, but never the final word. Don’t let rules pigeonhole you or harness your creativity. Landscape photography lets you be exactly what it is all about – unbound. Ditch the rule of thirds if you think you are confident about your unique perspective. Shoot at odd hours of the day when no other photographer would think of starting up. Leave the crow’s perch and explore the whole deck. Go out there and experiment!