So you want to be a landscape photographer?
You’ve seen the amazing pictures on your Instagram feed, you were awed by the locations shown in the photographs. You enjoy hiking in nature and would love to travel and explore the world. So now you want to live like your favorite landscape photographer and to spend full time promoting out-of-this-world landscapes? Is it that simple?
What do you need
In terms of equipment, a modest budget would be sufficient. A landscape photographer typically relies on mid to low aperture to keep subject and background in focus, or use a technique called focus stacking by combining multiple shots. Quality bokeh is less of an issue.
My recommended gear:
- A camera body, capable of low ISO (lower than 200), 20 megapixel resolution or higher to allow room for minor cropping;
- A wide-angle lens, 16–35mm full frame equivalent suggested;
- A tele-photo lens, such as a 70–200mm full frame equivalent;
- A stable tripod.
I have not specified the maximum aperture (lowest f-stop value) as you will typically shoot from f5.6 to f11 or smaller aperture, and practically all lenses will have higher maximum aperture. Go with the model that fits your budget and that you will be comfortable carrying.
As mentioned in my previous article on photography, I suggested APS-C sensor cameras, as they are smaller and cheaper. Full-frame cameras may let more light in, providing a better control over the image quality, but the price and weight trade-off may not be that significant, especially for outdoor landscapes. Full-frame benefits kick in for portrait and in-door, during low light conditions or when smooth bokeh are expected.
You want to invest in an excellent tripod. If you care for it, the tripod can last a lifetime and is an essential tool for all landscape photographers. Make sure it is strong enough to support your camera body with your heaviest lens mounted. Enable the leveling feature on your camera so you don’t need to buy a tripod equipped with bubble level. Many tripods also include a hook to add weight for further stabilization during windy conditions.
Finally, you need a well-featured photo-editing software. Among the most popular are Lightroom and Capture One. They do not come cheap for a reason; they are the choices of professional photographers and can do wonders to your raw images. They do offer light or free versions which are a good start to get yourself familiar with their tools before you commit to their software.
When to photograph
Indeed, there are “recommended” periods to take pictures so you can bring out the best of your landscape. Don’t expect those trees and mountains to display vibrant colors if you took your shot in the middle of the day on a clear sky.
The Golden Hour refers to the period when the Sun sits just above the horizon, at sunrise or sunset. On a sunny day, the angle of the sunlights and their refraction in the atmosphere create a beautiful golden hue and reduced contrast, producing warmer images. However, do not expect those periods to last an hour; the “hour” is just part of the expression, most of the time the Golden Hour will only last a few minutes.
The Blue Hour refers to the period when the Sun sits just below the horizon, before sunrise or after sunset. At this angle, the sunlights create a blue dominated hue, producing a calm effect from your images. Just like the Golden Hour, the Blue Hour may not last an hour, rather a few minutes, depending on the orientation of the Earth relative to the Sun.
You can still capture outstanding landscape pictures outside those limited periods and get creative. On cloudy days, contrast will be reduced and you can get dramatic results. During harsh daylight, you can play with the shadows or edit your pictures to black and white for abstract effect. The Golden Hour and Blue Hour are favored because they result in wonderful colors that are more pleasing but do not feel obligated to restrict yourself to those timeframes.
Where to photograph
Landscape photography is all about showcasing the beauty of nature, from lakes and waterfalls to trees and mountains, but not limited to. In general, you need to be close to nature and far from the city. For most of us, that may imply driving a few hours to reach the right location. A good starting point is to locate national parks near you, or lakes and mountains. Google Earth is a great and simple tool to find a location of interest; switch to 3D view to see the terrain elevation.
Start with one or two locations you can easily reach, then keep going back until you’ve explored all the trails and viewpoints possible. Landscape photography requires discipline and patience. If you wish to benefit from the Golden Hour or Blue Hour, more planning will be required.
- Choose your location and determine how long it will take you to arrive;
- Plan your dates and check the weather forecast;
- Decide when you want to take your pictures, near sunrise or sunset; you may need to stay the night;
- Check the orientation of your landscape relative to the sun;
- Pack every gear you will need, camera body, fully charged and backup batteries, memory cards, lenses and tripod.
Find your own places instead of relying on someone’s else Instagram feed.
How to photograph
While portraiture and wildlife photography are all about the subject and smoothing the background, landscape photography is usually about capturing the details in a great composition.
There are of course theories on composition and the most widely used being the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds applies a 3x3 grid on your entire photo area, and you position your main focus elements at the crosslines. The theory behind, is that the eye-brain tends to focus on those regions.
A less common composition theory is the golden ratio or Fibonacci spiral. The Fibonacci Spiral can be oriented however you want, as long as your primary elements are positioned at the origin, while the rest of the elements follow the spiral. This theory can be interpreted very loosely as a result, you may just end up trying to fit your actual picture with the theory.
I would strongly advise not to strictly apply those theories when capturing your landscape. Enable the grid and loosely position your main subject at the crossline, then avoid any unnecessary distractions — or edit them out during post-processing. As long as the overall picture feels pleasant and is telling the story you want, it will be a great photograph; don’t let the theories drive your composition.
Although you may be tempted to imitate the impressive pictures you see on Instagram, use them as inspiration and for ideas, but avoid replicating their composition. Social media are now flooded with similar pictures of popular locations; try to be creative. Arrive on location an hour prior (or the day before) to your planned schedule to scout the area, to look for alternative viewpoints and to find inspiration for your own composition; also to check and test your gear settings!
The life of landscape photographer
It all sounds easy right? Just a few camera gear, find the location, apply a few rules and “voilà” you’ve become a landscape photographer!… Not so simple. Landscape photography is a very accessible yet competitive niche. Everyone carrying a smartphone and arriving on location can take great pictures and share them on Instagram. As mentioned previously, you will find no shortage of landscape pictures on social media, so who would pay money for your beautifully crafted photos? Probably nobody.
When looking at the professional life of popular landscape photographers, their photos do not earn them money; rather they serve as marketing products by being shared or featured on social media, to bring attention to their skills and services. Some of these professionals will sell merchandise such as calendars, prints or photo books, but these will only bring in very limited income; the greater portion goes to the distributor or manufacturer, rather than the creator. Some photographers have a YouTube channel with few sponsors, some are sponsored by a camera brand or retailers, supplying them gear and lenses if they promote their brand or attend events. Their real income however comes from providing photography courses and coaching; organized travel with semi-private photo sessions, requiring great coordination and planning skills. Others will rely on revenue from private and corporate events photography services.
Landscape photography is unlikely a full time job, but it is a passion, a great hobby and an excuse to explore new places. Will you become a landscape photographer? I hope you found this article helpful or entertaining, be sure to let me know.