Home Blog Five landscape photography lessons I wish I had known five years ago: Digital Photography Review

Five landscape photography lessons I wish I had known five years ago: Digital Photography Review

by Amelia
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Gorgeous landscapes can crop up anywhere, even in dense forests like the Yarra Ranges.

Landscape photography is a continuous pursuit of refinement and growth—and we’re each on our own journey to develop our craft.

We might learn new processing techniques. Study how to track weather systems. Or step outside our comfort zone to experiment with new genres. Yet going from day to day and month to month, it can be difficult to discern any noticeable changes in our capabilities.

But if you step back to reflect on your growth over longer periods, you’ll notice areas where you’ve improved, and where you’d like to grow even further.

So, I thought I’d reflect on my growth as a landscape photographer these past five years. Here are some tips and insights for you to consider (or disregard, I’m not precious) when embarking on your own photography journey.

Lesson 1: With dynamic range, you can have too much of a good thing

For this first lesson, I’m not talking about ghostly HDR images generated at the click of a button by combining bracketed exposures. I’m talking about setting Lightroom sliders to -100 highlights and +100 shadows.

Because when we extend an image’s dynamic range as far as possible, we lose contrast and lessen the dynamism in the scene.

This sunrise over Bombo Quarry required a subtle touch when editing for natural contrast.

Viewers have certain, if subconscious, expectations when they see your image. Like the fact that patches of light are going to be bright, while the shadows behind an object should remain dark.

When you even out those extremes too much, your image will become flat—losing the sense of depth and realism that natural contrast would have otherwise created.

To highlight the importance of natural contrast that viewers will expect, consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You’re at a scenic mountain lookout. The ridges in the background are hazy, while the trees and rocks in front of you have more contrast. This dynamic is the natural way of things, where more distant objects gain haze and lose contrast. If you boost your shadows to their very extreme, you’ll lose that organic feeling of depth through your two-dimensional image.

Scenario 2: You’re shooting a sunrise seascape. Don’t forget that the sun is a giant ball of incredibly bright, hot plasma. If you underexpose and crush the highlights, they’ll appear muddy and unnatural. Likewise, use an overexposed frame—either through luminosity masks or HDR blending—for the darkest shadows sparingly. (A little bit will help to retain subtle textures, but too much will introduce light where there shouldn’t be any.)

When we extend an image’s dynamic range as far as possible, we lose contrast and lessen the dynamism in the scene.

The takeaway: extend the dynamic range in your images to preserve details in the brightest whites and the darkest blacks. But only do so in moderation.

Lesson 2: Stop focusing on sunrises and sunsets

Like many, I was drawn to landscape photography by bold explosions of color across the sky. Whether on a vacation or gazing out the window on a commute home, a spectacular sunset simply beckons to be captured.

Unsurprisingly, my early forays into landscape photography would send me down to the beach before dawn. I’d set my camera behind a sea stack and wait for the sky to do its thing.

Looking back, I think this approach harmed my development on two levels.

Firstly, expectations soon morphed into frustrations when the sky fizzled out. Even if the sky partially caught fire, my mind would drift to ‘what could have been’. If only those horizon clouds didn’t block the rising sun.

Spectacular sunsets are great. But that doesn’t mean your images have to revolve around them.

And faced with that potential frustration, I simply chose to avoid disappointment altogether. If there wasn’t a solid chance of a brilliant sunrise, I wouldn’t go out at all. I deprived myself of valuable learning opportunities to work with the light that was available.

Secondly, this mindset created severe tunnel vision. All my efforts became focused on the sky. I directed my attention on that one element—and missed other frames later in the day or even that same morning.

All too often, after the sunrise clouds had turned red and orange I’d pack up and head home.

But as I’ve experienced more scenes and become more open to a wider range of potential vistas, I’ve embraced shooting throughout the day. The sky won’t be as ‘epic’ as it can be at dawn and dusk. But broadening my shooting window from 30 minutes to many hours throughout the day has enabled me to capture and create a much more diverse range of images.

Stop focusing on sunrises and sunsets.

Look for patches of light rolling across the hillsides. Dappled light drifting through the forest. Or light reflecting off a glowing rock face. Spectacular skies are great. But that doesn’t mean your images have to revolve around them.

Lesson 3: Your long exposures are too long

I’m not one to dole out rigid rules that you need to adhere to, or else. But this third lesson is the closest I’ll come to telling you what to do.

Odds are, your default shutter speed for long exposures is too long. And for many years, I was guilty of this offense too. For waterfall and river scenes, I’d stick on a 6-stop ND filter and slow my shutter speed down to over a second. For seascapes, I’d hover around 1/2 second to create silky smooth water as waves rushed around boulders and down channels.

When tackling long exposures, experiment with faster speeds and review what looks best.

The problem? The water would turn to mush. The longer the water movement is averaged out, the more texture you’ll lose, until all you’re left with is a featureless milky bath.

If you’re looking to create some ethereal Middle Earth waterfall scene or a glass-like reflection, stick on your ND filter and call me names in the comments. But if you want to capture a realistic feeling of motion in your image, leave your ND filters at home.

The actual shutter speed will vary depending on your distance to the water and how fast it’s flowing. I’ve found that starting at 1/4 second and speeding that up to about 1/10 second (particularly for crashing waves) is a good starting point.

Don’t anchor yourself to 1/2 second and stay there throughout the session. Instead, experiment with faster speeds and review what looks best. And capture that feeling of energy you experienced on location in your static image.

Lesson 4: Persevere and persist—the photos will follow

Landscape photographers—and photographers more broadly—are at the mercy of the conditions we find ourselves in. Light can be achingly fleeting. Tides can be treacherous. Rain can dampen our spirits. And the seasons can come too slow and go too fast.

Often (too often), the conditions we encounter don’t always materialize as we had planned. When they don’t, that can be incredibly disheartening. Particularly if we had high hopes of an epic sunrise. Or we’ve travelled far. Or we woke before dawn to embark on a strenuous hike.

The one constant in landscape photography is the variability you’ll encounter.

It’s understandable for beginners to feel defeated and that their effort was wasted. I should have just slept in. I came halfway across the world for this?

The harsh reality is this: rarely will you arrive at a location and experience the best conditions.

You might see an epic midnight aurora over Skógafoss on Instagram. Or a brilliant autumnal explosion of color on Flickr. But what you don’t see are the days and seasons the artist invested in the pursuit. To catch the first snowfall of the season. Or to wait for soft glow falling across the landscape.

The one constant in landscape photography is the variability you’ll encounter. But don’t let that dishearten you. In fact, the inverse—when the elements align—is sheer ecstasy.

The one constant in landscape photography is the variability you’ll encounter. But don’t let that dishearten you. In fact, the inverse—when the elements align—is sheer ecstasy.

So when you get a fizzer of a day out in the field? Simply show up again tomorrow. The odds could be in your favor while the rest of us hit snooze on the alarm.

Lesson 5: Wide angles are great, but telephotos are grand

As I developed as a photographer, I went through a series of stages.

Early on, I would focus and rely on the sky—see Lesson 2. Then I became more mindful of foregrounds to add context to and depth throughout a scene. Then I paid closer attention to subtle compositional choices, like balance and framing.

Now I’ve found that a telephoto lens allows me to best distill the essence of a place. At longer focal lengths we have precise control over what makes it into the scene—and what doesn’t.

When there’s no epic light, search for textures, like this amazing moss covering this myrtle beech tree in The Otways of Victoria.

And we can be incredibly creative too. Rising a couple of steps in elevation could eliminate distracting patches of white sky behind a forest scene. While zooming in a few extra millimeters might exclude distractions just outside of the frame.

The creative decisions at our disposal are endless.

With a wide angle, we can simply point our camera at a scenic view and be guaranteed a pretty picture. With a telephoto, we can home in on essential elements. Eliminate distractions. And create a truly unique frame that can’t easily be replicated.

This doesn’t mean you need to go out and bolt on a 2x teleconverter to your 100-400mm lens. In fact, even experimenting at 35mm on your 16-35mm lens will open up new opportunities.

The lesson here is to unshackle yourself from 16mm.

Even if (and particularly when) there’s a vibrant sky exploding overhead. Look for the interplay of light and color reflecting on the water’s surface. Or explore the forest to capture golden light filtering through. When there’s no epic light, search for textures in the rocks and patterns in the bark instead. And try to distill your experiences in the images you create.

Final thoughts

Photography, like all art, is a highly subjective pursuit—your preferences (whether that’s long exposure shutter speeds or focal lengths) will be different to mine. That’s a good thing. It’s why two people can go to the same location, under the same light—and still walk away with entirely unique images.

Tasmania’s endangered Tarkine region provides a lush scene for landscapes.

I hope these lessons help you reexamine some of your own creative decisions. Perhaps you might tweak a comfortable habit. Or explore an entirely new technique. And that’s the thing about our journey as photographers and artists—and the overarching lesson of this article. To be continually trying, learning, and refining our craft.

Mitch Green is an Australian landscape photographer.

He can be found via his website, on Instagram, or down by the beach at 5 am waiting for sunrise.


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