Photography is among the most absorbing, rewarding hobbies anyone can take up. Especially as an expat exploring a new country, there’s often so much around you that completely bowls you over with its beauty, and that you would like to capture for posterity. Photography gives you the opportunity to do this and plenty more. With increased access to better equipment, it is now arguably easier and cheaper to get into photography as a hobby than ever before.Unfortunately, capturing the beauty that your eyes see isn’t as easy as most people think it is. A stunning landscape in front of you does not necessarily translate into a stunning landscape on film. We’ve all been to places that have taken our breath away, taken a photograph or two (or, with digital photography, perhaps a hundred!) that we were incredibly excited about, and later been disappointed with the results.
Taking a great landscape photograph involves a lot more than simply pointing at and shooting the sight in front of you. Your camera can’t record everything that your eye can see, and no matter how high-tech and complex it is, it doesn’t have the help of your brain to translate what you’re seeing. It takes a considerable amount of technical skill, aesthetic sensibility, and practice to get good photographs. The latter is of course entirely up to you, but we’ve got a short guide here to help you improve your skill and sensibility, and bring you closer to taking that perfect landscape photograph.
Use the right equipment
It’s possible to take great landscape photographs with relatively simple equipment, so don’t put too much emphasis on buying high-end, specialized gear. It’s true that certain pieces of equipment will expand the limits of what you are able to do, but this isn’t essential, especially when you’re starting out – for example, you may eventually want to capture panoramas, for which you will need a camera that is capable of doing this. On the other hand, certain equipment can expand the possibilities but also complicate things: a large-format camera will allow you to capture more detail, but will also limit your depth of field, which means that you’ll need to be more careful when focusing. Shutter speed and aperture size are also a consideration, but these are a bit of a balancing act, with one affecting the other, and both also depending upon the subject you’re photographing.
Generally, it’s recommended that you stretch your budget a little more for your lenses than for your camera. A basic camera can give you great results when used with the right lenses. A good medium-range lens or telephoto lens is usually part of a photographer’s standard equipment, and can give you great results when shooting landscapes. However, you can also experiment with other lenses. A wide-angle lens is particularly good for landscapes. In addition, you could consider a fish-eye lens, which allows you to take unique, dramatic photographs, although this may not be the effect you want for every landscape photograph you take.
Filters are an important part of a landscape photography setup, and the most important one is probably a polarizing filter, which will help you to control color and contrast, and to reduce glare. Another important piece of equipment is a tripod, without which it will be practically impossible to shoot at extremely low shutter speeds. It’s also advisable to use some kind of shutter release mechanism, so that your camera stays completely stable even when you’re clicking.
Lighting is usually not necessary for landscape photography, as the focus is on capturing natural beauty and natural light, meaning that any artificial lighting is either useless or detrimental when capturing vast landscapes. However, to shoot smaller spaces such as gardens or inside forests, some photographers do make use of flashes, reflectors, and artificial lights, although this must be done with great skill and care.
Remember to also take along any additional gear and equipment that may be needed to keep you and your camera safe from wind, dust, sand, rain, snow, and anything else you might encounter.
Learn and practise both the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography
Understand depth of field, and learn how to play with it. Typically, you will want to maximize your depth of field in landscape photography, usually by using a small aperture. As we said earlier however, this affects your ideal shutter speed, and your ISO too, so you’ll need to experiment, practise, and manage a fine balancing act. If you have an ND grad filter, learn how to use it; if you don’t have one, learn how to use exposure blending to overcome problems that arise due to the difference in brightness between the land and the sky.
Learn to shoot straight – today it’s extremely easy to straighten your photographs later, but it’s always best to get this done right when you’re shooting. Learn the rule of thirds, and play around with it. Learn how to use lines in your photographs to provide depth, create patterns, and draw the viewer’s eye to where you want it to go. Explore composition as much as you can, because without it, you will create technically correct but dull pictures.
Think about the foreground, and also consider movement and how it will affect your photograph both technically and aesthetically. For example, tall grass waving in the breeze can add a dramatic element to a photograph, but you’ll need to adjust your shutter speed to capture it properly, and possibly also consider a filter. It’s also important to have a focal point in your photographs. Without this, your photographs will be flat and characterless.
When you’re seeing a landscape in person, the entire scene is in front of you, and your eye can wander wherever it wants to, find the most interesting or beautiful elements, and jump from one to the next. However, when you’re looking at a photograph, all this needs to have been done in advance by the photographer.
Most landscape photographers don’t shoot in the middle of the day. Natural light tends to be ideal for photography at dawn and dusk. Sunlight is less harsh at these times than it is in the middle of the day, contrasts aren’t as stark, colors and hues are more interesting, and the angle of light creates interesting patterns and effects. Of course, the rule of the golden or magic hours doesn’t apply 100% to every landscape. You should experiment and learn for yourself when it works, when it can be worked around, and when it’s absolutely essential.
Many of the technical and aesthetic aspects of landscape photography are inextricably linked. Learn how they affect each other, and learn how to play with them. Of course, you should also always remember that it’s okay to break the rules; however, you usually need a good reason to do so, and before you even get to that, you need to know the rules and be able to follow them.
Lastly, it’s important to explore the work of other photographers. It’s said about writing that you can’t write well unless you read. It works similarly with photography. Whether online or at photography exhibitions, take every opportunity you can to look at the work of both amateur and professional photographers. Don’t worry about the silly conceit of keeping your muse pure and not “contaminating” it with other someone else’s vision. It’s important to learn and take inspiration from other photographers.
Be prepared to work and get dirty
As a photographer, you can’t afford to take it easy if you want great photographs. When you get to a beautiful location, the most accessible, convenient points will often not give you the best view for a photograph. You’ll need to lie on the ground, climb to better vantage points, contort yourself into uncomfortable positions, and perhaps hang precariously to get the perfect shot from the perfect angle. You may often need to wake up early or stay awake all night in order to get that perfect dawn light. Needless to say, don’t take foolish risks for the sake of a photograph. However, do be prepared to get uncomfortable, tired, and even dirty. You definitely can’t expect to stay comfortably seated in your car, unless there’s good reason to do so.
It will also often help to do a little bit of research in advance. Find out about the best locations for photography in the place you’ll be visiting, look at a map, figure out how to get there and back, look up sunrise and sunset times, consider where the sunlight and shadows will fall, and look up the weather forecast. If you’re preparing for dawn shots, carry a compass and figure out where the sun will rise. If you’re visiting a monument, a park, or some other place that’s likely to have opening and closing times, find out what they are in advance. Finally, when you reach a location, look around a bit, and consider all the possibilities before you actually start shooting. Don’t simply turn up with your camera, start clicking, and expect to get great shots.
Work with the landscape and the weather
Consider your landscape, how the various elements will look in a photograph, how they will affect each other, what you’re trying to achieve, and what will actually be possible according to the weather and the time of day. For example, a clear, cloudless sky can be stunning to look at in person, but will probably make for a boring photograph unless you have other interesting elements in it.
Water is always an interesting part of a photograph, but again, you need to think about the effect it will have. Consider whether the water is still or moving, and use the appropriate equipment and techniques to capture it. If there’s water in a landscape, you should also consider the effect that reflections on its surface will add to your photograph. Reflections can make a photograph more interesting, but they can sometimes be distracting. Sometimes, taking your photograph from a different spot or at a different angle can give you just the right reflection or perhaps avoid a bright flash of sunlight off the water.
Weather is of course an important consideration when photographing landscapes, but it doesn’t always work the way you might think it would. Cloudy or rainy weather isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Firstly, an overcast day might give you that perfect natural light that we mentioned earlier, the light that you would otherwise get only get at dusk and dawn. Secondly, it often offers photographers a chance to capture some amazing skies – spectacular clouds, shafts of sunlight, rainbows, and plenty more. A bland, flat landscape can come to life with great drama if you’re lucky enough to encounter a storm. Don’t look at bad weather as an impediment; it’s often a great opportunity.
Often, the sheer scale of the view is what is most striking in person, and is what you want to capture. However, many such landscapes don’t work well in photographs unless you can find an interesting element or angle. In person, your eye and brain can wander around as much as they want to; in a photograph, you only have what’s in the frame. There’s no way to zoom in and out, look to the left or right, up or down, or find a reference point so that the scale of the landscape is really brought home.
Also remember that not only will a beautiful landscape not automatically give you beautiful photographs, but that a dull or even ugly landscape can give you extremely striking, poignant photographs. It’s up to you to find beauty and points of interest in what’s before you, and then find a way to capture them. Coasts or mountains may be the sights draw you at first, and it’s important to respond to whatever calls out to you. However, keep an open mind – farmland, cityscapes, and even scenes of ruin and decay can create great photographs.
Do you have any tips for taking great photographs of your new home? Let us know in the comments!