Share your worldview with landscape photography!
What do postcards, calendars and dentist offices have in common? Landscape photography! Scenic vistas have long captured our imagination as humans. Their likeness on print have the power to transport us to other worlds, help recall cherished vacations and soothe a troubled soul (or tooth).
If you want to start shooting iconic landscapes for profit, or just for fun, read on! I’ll define landscape photography, explain the basic equipment you’ll need and give you a few hints on camera settings and setups to help you get started.
What is Landscape Photography?
Landscape photography is, most simply, photographing a large-scale scene on a camera. Most landscape photos feature nature, but cityscapes and other man-made features can also be considered landscape photography. Anything that captures your soul and tells a story about our great, big, wide world is fair game. Your subject may be the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or the deserts of Central Africa. Your scene can feature just the landscape, accompanying wildlife, structures or even people. There are no real hard and fast rules to landscape photography – just that the scene itself is the subject.
What are the best cameras for Landscape Photography?
Any camera, from a smart phone to a full-frame DSLR, will allow you t
o shoot landscape photography. The best camera is the one you have and will carry with you! That may be your phone, an adventure camera like a GoPro or a professional body.
However, if you eventually want to print your photos in a large format (think large prints, canvas, etc.) or sell your work commercially, you’ll need a camera with good resolution and the ability to shoot in low light. Most serious amateurs and professional landscape artists show with a DSLR or higher-end mirrorless camera. A solid landscape photography camera body should have at least 24 Mega pixels, allow you to shoot in manual mode and offer interchangeable lenses. These more advanced cameras come with a higher price tag, but will offer you the best image for printing and give you the tools and flexibility to change settings like white balance, aperture and ISO to full capture the scene as you want to. DSLRs and some mirrorless cameras also accommodate interchangeable lenses, making them that much more versatile.
Before you drop some serious cash on a new camera though, use the gear you have. If you find after a while that you have a real and lasting passion for landscape photography, there will be plenty of time down the road to upgrade to a new body or system. As you begin to improve, you’ll know when your talent is outpacing your gear.
What lens do I need for Landscape Photography?
Landscapes are usually shot from a wider perspective. You want to capture the whole scene—sky, hills and foreground. A quality, wide-angle lens is a must. The most versatile landscape photography lens is 35mm or wider. Of course too wide and you start to get into the fish-eye effect. So a lens that allows you to shoot between 16 and 35mm is usually a good choice.
When choosing your landscape photography lens and focal length, don’t forget think about the size and type of your camera’s sensor. A 24mm lens on a full frame DSLR is 24mm. That same lens on a crop sensor DSLR is actually around 36mm, and on a Micro 4/3 mirrorless camera is more like 48mm.
Lens quality is another thing to consider. Generally, the more expensive lenses are higher quality. These lenses cost more because they are built with better glass, higher quality mechanics and perform better in low light. Higher end professional lenses also offer features like image stabilization and lens coatings.
Weight might be another influence in your decision. If your priority is to travel fast and light, a lightweight prime (fixed length) lens would be preferable over a fast zoom lens, because those tend to be bigger and heavier. For example, my 24mm f/1.8 Nikon lens weighs 9.52 ounces. My 24-105mm f/4 Nikon zoom lens weighs in at 1.56 pounds, almost 3 times the weight and size. When you’re climbing mountains or crisscrossing the valley floors on foot, every little bit of size counts!
Portrait lenses vs. landscape lenses
And while more expensive lenses are generally higher quality, don’t feel like you need to run out and buy the most expensive lens at your chosen focal length. Many lenses on the market today are designed and marketed toward portrait photographers, but might not meet your needs as a landscape photographer. Because you want a large depth of field in a landscape photo, you’ll often be shooting at a smaller f-stop like f/8, f/11 or f/16. A lens that shoots beautiful portraits wide open at f/1.4 is overkill then. Know what you want out of the lens and what your priorities are before you go shopping, then make the best decision you can based on those factors.
Professional landscape photographers will often have 3 or 4 lenses in their kits, usually something like:
- 14mm – wide angle for astrophotography
- 16-35mm – covers the range of most wide angle photo shots
- 24-70mm – a general, all purpose lens
- 70-200mm – a telephoto lens used for isolating subjects or bringing far away elements closer
Getting started, however, only requires a single lens. So choose the one that best meets your immediate needs.
What are the best settings for landscape photography?
It is impossible to give you the exact camera settings to use for landscape photography. That depends on your goals for the image, available light and even personal preference. You’ll have to experiement to find your style and create the image on camera that you envision in your mind. But here are a few starting points. You can adjust up or down accordingly to create your perfect vision.
Shoot in manual mode. This gives you the most control over your image and allows you to dictate how the scene is recorded in camera.
Most landscape photos are shot with great depth-of-field. That is, there is great focus from front to back of the scene. Start with an aperture of f/8 to f/11. Shooting nighttime landscape may require a wider aperture to let enough light in your scene.
ISO controls the noise, or grain, in your image. Start with an ISO of 100 and adjust up from there to accommodate for your other settings. Make sure auto-ISO is turned off or the camera may adjust ISO later without you realizing it.
Shutter speed will depend on the aperture and ISO you pick. To eliminate camera shake when shooting hand held, you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/focal length. So if you are shooting a 35mm lens, you’d want a minimum shutter speed of 1/60 of a second. You could choose a faster shutter speed to freeze motion in your scene, like 1/200. Or you could choose a slower shutter speed like ¼ of a second to convey motion or smooth water.
White balance are the camera’s settings for conveying colors. Landscape photography can be full of rich, vibrant colors like deep greens or blues. Auto white balance, which is the default setting for most cameras, tries to remove color casts. So auto white balance might actually be working against you! If your colors aren’t rendering as you’d like, try switching your camera’s white balance function to daylight, shade or cloudy. These presets add a bit of warmth to the white balance and keep landscapes, especially at sunrise and sunset, from getting washed out.
This is entirely a personal preference. Usually auto focus works great for landscape photography because nothing is moving. Select the autofocus point yourself, however, so you determine the area of focus, not the camera. If you can’t quite get the focus you want, switch to manual focus to really dial it in.
I could write an entire separate article on metering modes, but I generally use spot metering and meter off the blue sky or green grass in an image. That’s personal preference, though. Use whatever metering mode works best for you!
Shooting in RAW format will result in larger files and require post-processing via photo editing software to achieve the look you see in your camera’s LCD view. However, this format gives you biggest, uncompressed file to work with.
Other settings I use for landscape photography?
- Turn OFF high ISO noise reduction
- Turn OFF Active D lighting (or Dynamic Range Optimization for Canon users)
- Enable ON one click zoom. This lets you zoom in 100% on a portion of your photo when you view it on the LCD by pushing one button. This lets me quickly zoom in on any part of the image I wish. Again a personal preference that I find extremely helpful.
- Turn ON long exposure noise reduction. Enabling this feature means it will take your camera longer to write an image, BUT I find it results in fewer hot, or oddly discolored, pixels in the final image.
Landscape Photography Tips for Beginners
Tip #1 – Practice, practice, practice
You won’t ever get better or shoot more compelling images if you only pick up your camera when you are on vacation. Practice frequently to learn your camera and understand how to create the scene you want. Not every photo you take needs to be of Yosemite or the Statute of Liberty. You can learn just as much taking photos in backyard or city.
Tip #2 – Invest in a dependable tripod
Using a tripod improves the sharpness and focus of your images. A tripod allows you to use lower shutter speeds than you could otherwise because it eliminates camera shake. A good tripod is critical for nighttime photography, but is also helpful when you want to drag your shutter to create motion blur in water, clouds, snow, sand or even lights. Pick a sturdy tripod with a wide base that is built of quality material. Remember that you are trusting it to hold up what could be a very expensive camera and lens, so pick one that you can count on, not the cheapest one you can find.
Tip #3 – Find beautiful light
You’ll find the most compelling light just after dawn and right before sunset. Photographers call this time the golden hour because the sun is low in the sky and creates soft, beautiful color in the environment. Shooting in the middle of the day, on the other hand, provides high contrast, with very bright highlights and very dark shadows.
If you’re shooting cityscapes or using man-made lights as an accept to your landscape, try shooting in “the blue hour.” This is the hour after the sun has set or before the sun has risen. The light you can see creates a lovely shade of blue in the sky with deeply saturated color. I find it’s a great accent to city lights, car light trails and even the moon.
Tip #4 – Play with different horizon lines and compositions to build interest
Most beginning landscape photographers begin by putting the horizon in the center of the frame. That is a good place to start, but doesn’t always make the most compelling scene. Try moving the horizon and inspiring your creativity. If the sky is the star of your show, so to speak, put the horizon on the bottom third of your image. If your focus is the landscape itself, try putting the horizon in the upper third of your image. Try different compositions, angles and focal points.
Tip #5 – Don’t be afraid to go vertical
Just because it’s landscape photography, don’t feel like you can’t shoot in portrait, or vertical, orientation. Try photographing your scene both ways and see which you like better!
There’s a reason coffee table books, television ads and even dentist offices are filled with landscape photographs. They are beautiful to look at and help take us as viewers to locales we might otherwise never experience. Landscape photography is one of the easiest disciplines to break into and can be an enjoyable pastime for anyone who loves nature or travel. Arm yourself with a camera and some settings and get to work. Practice. Experiment. Play. Create. Get out there and push your horizons!