The photographer Ansel Adams is reputed to have said “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.”
Any vacationer who has tried to capture the beauty of a scenic vista can only add an eloquent, “Duh!”
But there are some guidelines to landscape photography that can elevate anyone’s game. The landscape and adventure-sport photographer Tom Bol agreed to share a few.
1) Go 3-D. When people think of landscape photos, they typically envision a view of, say, distant mountains, but they fail to consider all of the things happening in the foreground that lead the eye to the mountains. “It’s about having lots of depth of field, and having elements front and center of your frame that lead you the background,” said Mr. Bol. “I call it a visual handrail.”
It is the blending of the foliage in the foreground, the mid-distance lake, and the distant cloud-shrouded mountains that give the photo its depth. “It’s important to have good foreground, middle ground and background to give it three dimensions,” said Mr. Bol.
2) Go wide. “The majority of my landscapes are shot with a 14mm to 24mm zoom lens at F16,” Mr. Bol said. That is the same as it would be on a 35mm camera because Mr. Bol’s Nikon D3s has a 35mm-size sensor. You would need an even wider lens to get the same effect on a camera with a smaller sensor. Wide-angle lenses not only take in more real estate, they inherently keep more of the near and far in focus at the same time.
3) Be stable. Landscapes are all about getting sharp detail foreground and background, which usually requires a shutter speed on the slow side. “Most hardcore landscape guys are going to be on a tripod,” said Mr. Bol. That kind of stability is critical for sharp focus. Some photographers go so far as to use the mirror lock, which stops the mirror in the camera from flipping up when the shot is taken, eliminating a tiny source of potential vibration.
4) Weather the weather. When shooting at a lower shutter speed on windy days, the undulating flowers in the foreground or trees in the distance can blur. Mr. Bol counsels patience. “Even if there are steady winds, just wait it out, see if you get that lull.” If not, “look for things in the foreground that aren’t in the wind, likes rocks, sand, or you can speed up your shutter action.”
5) Let the water whirl. Streams and waterfalls often benefit from motion blur. “If it’s moving water, that’s a great thing to shoot in slow speeds, it can make the water look silky,” said Mr. Bol. “Even a crashing surf line.”
6) Don’t get all dark and stormy. “I don’t know who said it, but you are not photographing the subject, you are photographing the light on the subject,” said Mr. Bol. And since you can’t light distant peaks with your flash, what do you do when light is bad? “If the light is not working for the big scenes, maybe I’ll choose a little scene,” Mr. Bol said. “I am going to look right at my feet at these interesting rounded rocks and seaweed, and that works great with this light.” Another option? “Overcast may work great for black and white or -this will get me in trouble – maybe it’s doing something in post-production to make it interesting,” like increasing the contrast or adding shot sepia tone in Photoshop, he said.
7) Filter the light. Too much light can be as bad as too little. But if you want to chronicle your whole vacation, you can’t just shoot at the “golden hour” at dusk and dawn. “You see some great images in full sunlight. A lot of times when oceans get penetration from overhead light it really changes the look,” Mr. Bol said. What can really help that look – removing reflections from water and adding rich texture to clouds, rocks, plants – is a circular polarizing filter. Mr. Bol commonly uses one. “I prefer to do it in the field,” rather than using a digital filter afterwards, he said. But he has abandoned warming filters, because warming can effectively be added afterwards.
If your first tries don’t quite measure up to Ansel Adams, don’t feel bad. Although it can happen, great shots are seldom a matter of lucking into the right place at the right time, but are more often a matter of persistence. “What separates the good landscape photographers and the best in the business, is the best will go to the most popular places, but they go back again and again until the conditions are right,” Mr. Bol said.
Hope you were planning a long vacation.