If you want to make the transition from amateur to professional, or just improve your landscape photography game, there’s 5 things you need to be doing correctly – and they’re all simple! So let’s take a look at some really common problems in beginner landscape photography and solve them!
One thing that screams “I’m new to this” is a crooked horizon. Not only is it an obvious ‘whoops’ that you can’t unsee, it can throw your whole image off balance and give it an unintentional weight to one side.
Solution: Most digital cameras these days will have a built-in level guide that will let you nail this every time, regardless of if you’re using a tripod of going free-hand. Thankfully, if you can’t get it right in-camera for whatever reason, it’s super easy to fix in editing.
You can use the Ruler tool in Photoshop, or the Angle adjustment slider in Lightroom to nail that straight horizon. Other editing software will have similar tools.
If your horizon is bent and not crooked, try adjusting the distortion of your photo. This effect is called “barrel distortion” and is caused by your lens.
This is where the highlights in your image become pure white and lose all their detail. This is fine for light sources, like the sun or a torch, but everything else should be preserved. This is really common with sunsets/sunrises where surrounding clouds become blown out and lose all of their texture and colour.
Solution: Use ND filters and keep an eye on your histogram to manage the exposure. Graduated ND filters can tame a bright sky but keep your foreground exposed correctly.
If you can’t use ND filters, set your exposure based on the brightest area and try and keep as much detail in your shot as possible. If you shoot in RAW, you can protect the highlights and shadows in Photoshop or Lightroom. Practice will help you determine how far you can push your settings in-camera before editing can’t save your image.
Your image should have clear indicators as to where you want the emphasis of your image to be. Where are we meant to be looking? The easiest way to start is nailing the focus. Usually when it comes to landscape photography we want everything in the frame in focus, but shallow depth of field is also common. However, knowing whether to use shallow or deep focus could mean the difference between a keeper and a throwaway. If you’re shooting a mountainscape but you’re focusing only on the foreground grass, that’s a missed opportunity for an amazing shot.
Now, yes I will admit, this is a stylistic choice that can work really well in certain scenarios. 9 times out of 10 though, you want to be nailing the focus on the most prominent feature of your image.
Solution: Whether you’re using manual or autofocus, set the focus point of your image manually. Your camera should have settings that can be changed: centre, flexible spot, wide, zone, etc. Move your focus point around and tell your camera where it should be focusing.
Focus your lens to infinity and use a small aperture (between f/8 and f/13 is good) if you want everything in focus. If focusing to infinity doesn’t work for you (it won’t always), manually select your focus point.
Low light might call for manual focus for the best results. If you struggle to use manual focus, zoom in (digitally) on your prominent feature and then adjust focus.
If your image isn’t sharp because you’ve missed the focus or your tripod/hands moved during the exposure, you’ll end up with a new file in your trash can. If you’re shooting at a smaller aperture like f/11 because you want everything in focus, it’s important to make sure everything is sharp too. I often find that shooting at f/11 will still give me a blurry foreground, but not enough blur to look deliberate. This is a quick way to look like a beginner.
So, why don’t I just shoot at an even smaller aperture like f/16? It’s super important to know that a smaller aperture, usually anything smaller than f/13, can create unsharp and washed out images. This is because after a certain point “diffraction” will occur and cause the light coming through the lens to be spread out and cause a softening effect. Different lenses will have different “sweet spots”, so where f/11 is great for my lens your lens might be sharpest at f/8.
Solution: My favourite way to overcome this is focus stacking – this means taking two or more images with different focal lengths and combining them in Photoshop. It’s important to keep the same aperture if you do this to eliminate as much focus breathing as possible.
I always recommend a tripod (and a sturdy one at that) and a 2-second timer to make sure you don’t get any wobble during an exposure. If you’re going handheld, make sure you use a faster shutter speed to avoid hand shake. 1/100 and above should work.
Also, experiment with your lenses to find out where that “sweet spot” is!
Using auto settings.
If the dial on the top of your camera is set to “auto” or any of the other icons, it’s time to take a big step out of your comfort zone. The usual suspects are the mountain icon for landscapes, the flower icon for macro stuff, or the green camera that tells your camera to do it all for you.
You’ll want to be sticking with either M, A, S or P, but I can’t recommend M (Manual mode) enough. The reason auto settings are a problem is because you are completely out of control of your image. You want silky water, or want to darken that sky? Good luck with that!
Using Manual mode will give you complete control and so much flexibility. It will also force you to educate yourself on what different shutter speeds, apertures and ISO mean for your image. Being familiar with these settings means you can predict what settings you want for the location before you’ve even arrived.
Auto settings are fine for those holiday snaps, but dynamic landscape photos require a strong attention to detail, and it all starts with your settings.
Solution: Use Manual mode and learn what each setting is responsible for, and experiment with different settings at different locations.