Developing a workflow in Landscape photography
Whilst this document is written with landscape photography in mind the process can be applied to many other situations when you are working with a tripod (e.g. still life or macro photography).
The idea of having a workflow is that it breaks the key parts of the photographic process down into ‘bite-sized’ chunks that are executed in order. This simplifies matters so you are less likely to make mistakes and will have more ‘keepers’ from your outings.
The workflow consists of the following steps:
- Taking the photograph
1. Preparation – where and when
This is a very important phase that is often overlooked by those new to photography. If you just go out with your camera hoping to get a good photograph, the chances are you probably won’t!
If you have ‘the image’ you want to take in your mind before you start your trip you will have a far better chance of success. Things to think about are:
If you are starting out, there are many ‘top landscape destination’ articles in magazines and, with the advent of geo-targeting, there is much on the web now too. This approach is all well and good but be aware that if you follow this path you may end up becoming frustrated that you can’t recreate something as good as David Noton.
My personal preference is to find my own subjects and locations as I get more satisfaction from this than creating just another ‘me too’. When I’m out and about I’m always keeping an eye on the landscape and making mental notes of places to come back to.
Most landscape photographers work in the hours either side of sunrise and sunset and will rarely be seen out in the middle of the day in direct sunlight. This is because the light at the extremes of the day has less contrast (lower dynamic range) and it is much easier to manage your exposures. Also, the ‘colour temperature’ of the light is such that you will have some more pleasing tones (e.g. warm/yellow light before sunset). Shadows will be softer and easier to work with too.
If you are going somewhere new, check it out on Google Earth first and see which direction the sun will be at during the day. Also, if you are going to the coast, make sure you know when high and low tides are. I purchased a Kent tide table for the whole year from a local fishing shop for £1 – now that’s value. There are also some internet resources such as the BBC which will give you tide tables for the whole of the UK up to a week in advance.
Because I’m looking for optimum image quality I will typically shoot at 100 or 200 ISO.
I always use mirror-lockup and a 2-second timer delay. Instead of the timer delay you can equally use a remote release cable/wireless trigger. With these methods we are just trying to make sure that the camera doesn’t move whilst the shutter is open so that we get a pin-sharp image.
One thing that you need to be aware of is that when you are not looking through the viewfinder, light can enter through it an affect the camera’s in-built exposure meter. This can lead to your images being under-exposed. When setting your exposure (in Manual mode – covered in section 4 below) it is best to do this through the viewfinder or to blank it off with the back of your hand (if your camera does not have a blanking switch).
Start off by working round the location, looking through the viewfinder of your camera, to find an aspect that pleases you. As well as trying different focal lengths, don’t forget to explore different heights too.
What to include
Particularly when working with wide angle shots, make sure that you have foreground, mid-ground and background interest in the picture. Try to avoid having large areas of the image with little in them (e.g. uninteresting grass/sand or a bland sky) as these will kill the image.
Not all landscape images are taken with a wide angle lens. Indeed, my favourite lens is a 70-200 and, because perspectives are flattened at these focal lengths, foreground/background balance is less important.
Once you have identified what will be the main components of the image you will need a vantage point and focal length that will allow you to separate these in the frame. Think about what is crossing the horizon and whether changing height will improve things.
Avoiding overlapping components in your images is a key skill that you need to acquire.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds says to place important structural elements on an imaginary third or an intersection of thirds. This really works so get used to framing things off-centre rather than positioning things in the middle of your shots.
Think about your horizons too. If the sky is offers little interest then look to have the horizon on the upper third. If the sky is full of moody or interesting clouds, look to put the horizon on the lower third. Some of my very best landscape shots have no sky in them at all!
Once you have settled on your chosen composition, put your camera securely onto your tripod, making sure that any key vertical or horizontal components are correctly aligned.
Decide on how much of the scene you wish to retain in focus. Generally, in landscape photography, we want it sharp front-to-back. To achieve this you will need to understand the three parameters that determine depth of field, namely: lens focal length, focal distance and lens aperture. There is too much to cover in this article but you will typically be looking to focus about a third of the way into the scene with an aperture between f/8 and f/16. I prefer to work in ‘live view’ mode with manual focusing when shooting landscapes.
Now that the composition and focusing are taken care of we are getting towards the end of the process. The penultimate phase is to tackle exposure. Nowadays, with dSLRs having the ability to show a histogram of your image there is less of a need for a light meter.
In Manual mode, I start by assessing the scene and adjusting my shutter speed to what I think will give me a good exposure (having set my aperture as part of the focusing step above). I’ll then take a test shot and look at the histogram. This will show me the dynamic range of the scene and give me all the details I need to determine whether any filtering is required. As you get more experienced you will soon develop a feel for filtering requirements before you even take a test shot.
I regularly use polarising or graduated neutral density filters (and occasionally both) to manage my exposures, to reduce the tones in skies or other bright areas. If you opt for using a polariser just remember a few golden rules.
- Rotating the front element whilst looking through the viewfinder will allow you to work through to find the optimum angle/effect.
- Polarising filters work best when you are photographing at 90 degrees to the direction of the sun
- When using with very wide angle lenses you may well get a gradation of colour across the sky
- If you rotate your camera from landscape to portrait orientation you will need to rotate the filter in the opposite direction to maintain the same effect
With graduated neutral density filters, choose a combination that will allow you to reduce the dynamic range sufficiently to give a good tonal range across the scene.
Remember when using either of these types of filter that you will reduce the total amount of light entering the camera which means that you will need to move to slower shutter speeds to maintain the optimum exposure.
Try to get your histogram so that the highlights (RHS) are pushed so that they are almost or slightly burnt out (the latter can be brought back in Photoshop) – so called ‘exposing to the right‘.
5. Taking the photograph
All that is left now is to take the photograph.
It won’t happen overnight, but if you can put this process into practice, it won’t be long until you start seeing an improvement in your images.
I hope you find this article interesting.