October 27, 2021

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Landscape photography: A Beginner’s Guide

18 min read

Knowing the principles of great landscape photography is the key to taking excellent photos of almost any scene or subject. So, while it may seem odd to find a guide on Space.com that doesn’t directly relate to the stars or the moon, we think it’s vital that newcomers master the basics of landscape photography before progressing to astro and nigh sky images. In this beginner’s guide to landscape photography we’ll teach you the basics – from camera kit to composition to editing – and explain why it’s important to know these core facts.

Once you’ve learned the lessons here, and know how to compose a scene and use natural light to bring it to life, you will get way more from our astrophotography for beginner’s guide, and you’ll feel more confident about composing shots when you are photographing the moon.   

Landscapes for Beginners – Equipment

Landscape photography is without a doubt one of the more popular styles of photography, but knowing where to start your collection of equipment can be a bit confusing as there are so many different options out there. Here are some of our tips on how to choose your equipment for landscape photography.

(Image credit: Sigma)

Lenses

When it comes to choosing a camera for landscape photography, the focus (pun intended) isn’t so much on the camera body itself, but more so on which lens you choose. Many photographers will actually purchase a certain lens first, then find a camera body that will fit that particular lens. Generally, in landscape photography you’ll be using a wide angle to mid-range focal length for the majority of your shots. Most kit lenses are somewhere within the region of 24-70mm, which is a great starting point for landscape photography. They’re wide enough to capture broad vistas, but have enough zoom to pick out specific areas of a scene.

Wider focal lengths are primarily used for larger scenes with a foreground, mid ground, and background. Specialized wide lenses usually run from 14-24mm, although some drop as low as 10mm. Generally, wide lenses are ideal for night sky photography and astro. Telephoto lenses can also be used in landscape photography – longer focal lengths are great for zooming in to isolate certain aspects of the scene, and the compression makes the objects appear much closer together. This is a good lens to use if there isn’t much interest in a scene and you want to focus on certain points. If you’re composing a shot of the moon, in a landscape, the telephoto lens is your best friend.

Tripod

Although a tripod is very useful to have, they aren’t always a necessity for landscape photography. There are certain conditions where you will absolutely need one to get the desired result, but in many cases you can shoot without one. 

If you think you’ll be shooting landscapes during the day when there’s lots of good light, or if there’s not much movement in your scene, you can absolutely get away with shooting handheld. Many lenses have built-in image stabilization so you can achieve some good results without the use of a tripod. If, however, you want to shoot long exposure (perhaps to capture the movement of long grasses), or you’re shooting in the evening or under dark cloud where there isn’t much light and therefore need to lengthen your shutter speed, you will need a tripod. 

If you’re shooting high up in the mountains or on a windy day – think about how sturdy you need your tripod to be. Carbon Fiber tripods, like the Benro Mach3 combines strength and lower weight, but you do pay for it. Lightweight tripods are fantastic to carry as they won’t break your back, but they don’t always hold their own in adverse weather. If you do go for a lightweight tripod, ensure to find one with a counterweight hook on the bottom of the central column. You can hang your camera bag on it to weigh the tripod down a bit so it doesn’t move in the wind. If you need something cheaper, but heavier, the Vanguard Alta Pro is a good option. Note that astro will always require a tripod, so it’s best to have one.

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

Filters

As a beginner to landscape photography, a filter may not be one of your top priorities. However, it’s helpful to know how a filter can eliminate certain challenges when shooting landscapes, and how they can also enhance your images. You may have seen photos of rivers and waterfalls where the water looks beautifully flowing and milky and wondered – how do I achieve that? The answer is: with a Neutral Density filter or a polarizing filter. ND filters limit the amount of light going into the lens, which enables you to have a longer shutter speed. Using a long shutter speed is what gives the water that milky quality. The intensity of this effect depends on how long your shutter is open, so experiment with different timings. ND filters come in different strengths, but we’d recommend either a 2, 3, or 4 stop ND filter to get you started. Most filters require a holder too, so build this into your budget. Cokin make some great packages, and this ND kit is a great place to start.

A polarizing filter can also be useful in landscape photography. If you’re shooting on a really sunny day, a polarizing filter can boost the colour of the sky, eliminate any unsightly glare from shiny leaves, and reduce reflections from the surface of any lakes you’re shooting. You just attach the filter to the front of the lens, and rotate the filter to get the desired effect. 

Personal equipment

If you’re going to be taking your camera along on hikes and long walks, you’ll need to make sure you’re prepared. We always wear walking shoes or hiking boots when we’re out shooting, as well as weather appropriate clothing and SPF. Warm clothing is especially important if you’re going to be shooting at night. A comfortable camera bag is also very important, Lowepro, Karrimor, and Neewer do some great affordable rucksacks which also include a tripod holder. Don’t forget to pack waterproofs for yourself and your camera in case it rains!

Landscapes for Beginners – Technique

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

There are many different shooting styles and techniques when it comes to landscape photography. Here’s a breakdown of some of them to help get you started.

Auto mode is a great place to start with landscape photography, as your camera will read the light and determine which shutter speed, aperture, and iso is most appropriate to use. Using auto mode can give you less to think about if you’re starting out by focusing on composition. If you’d like to manually determine the depth of field of your photo, shoot in aperture priority. In this mode, you set which aperture you’d like the camera to use, and the camera will fill in the rest for you based on which aperture you’ve chosen. Aperture determines how much light reaches your camera sensor, and can impact the sharpness and saturation of an image. If you want focused foreground objects, with softer backgrounds, go for a wider aperture (which is a lower f-number).

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

Shutter priority is the same concept, only you manually set the shutter speed. This is a great way of working your way up to full manual mode, where you can control all the settings. You’ll need to use manual for astro, really, so landscape is a great discipline to help you learn the skills.

There are also different shooting modes. For landscape photography you’d normally be using single shot mode. If, however, you wanted to shoot a moving object in your scene, for example, an animal, burst/drive mode would be beneficial to use here. In this mode, the camera takes numerous different shots as long as you hold the shutter button down.

When it comes to composition, it largely depends on what type of scene is in front of you. If you’re shooting large vistas, look for angles and intersecting lines in the scene. Using layers in hills is a brilliant way to create interest and lead the viewer through your photo. Try to have a focal point in the distance to focus on. If you want to zoom in on a particular tree in the distance, for example, you might consider framing the tree in the center of the photo to create more impact. Try different compositions within the same scene and see what you like the look of best when you get them onto the computer. Remember there’s no right or wrong here. 

Landscape photography goes hand in hand with wildlife and nature photography. In the spring you may want to isolate pastel flowers in the foreground by using a wide aperture. Or you could look for a carpet of bluebells which can fill your frame or give a beautiful foreground. Shoot these with the light coming in from the side of the scene to create gorgeous light rays. If you want to shoot deer or spring lambs, get down to eye level and use focus tracking with drive/burst mode.

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

In summer, it goes without saying there’s usually lots of light. To avoid overexposing your landscape scene, use an aperture of between around f9-f14 to make sure the whole scene is in focus and not to allow too much light through the lens. You can also overcome this by increasing the shutter speed if you don’t want to capture movement in your photo. Consider using an ND filter if you need to limit the amount of light going through the lens, particularly if you are working with a slower shutter speed. This is a great way to add more drama to cloud cover, when shooting on dull days.

In the Fall, you will likely want to capture the beautiful colors of fallen leaves. Using a polarizer here can help reduce glare from the leaves and boost the colours. If you’re shooting water in your landscape, a polarizer will also eliminate reflections in the surface. Some cameras have an autumn colours setting in the creative section of the camera menu. 

A polarizer would also be useful in the winter to reduce the brightness of any snow. If you want to photograph sparse, lonely trees, use a wider aperture to focus right in on the tree and blur the rest of the scene. If you’re shooting snow covered hills, use a smaller aperture to get more of the scene in focus. You may need to dial down your exposure compensation on your camera if the scene looks a bit too bright. 

When you are thinking about techniques, make sure you consider light. How does the cloud affect the light? Generally, the denser the cloud, the softer the light. A perfect day would be light clouds to disperse the light and create recognisable shadows and good color. The quality of light will determine which ISO you use. You only really have to change your iso if you’re shooting in full manual mode, but a general rule of thumb is better quality light = lower iso, and low quality light = higher iso. For night and astrophotography you may need to use quite a high ISO to make sure you’re capturing light as efficiently as possible. If you’re worried about higher ISO creating grain, we do have a guide to reducing noise in astrophotography.

Landscapes for Beginners – Location & Times

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

Doesn’t matter if you prefer cityscapes, classic landscapes, or even seascapes – you need to find interesting places to shoot, and know how they look at different times of day (or in different weather and light conditions). While we can’t tell you where to go and shoot, these are our tips on what to look for, and when.

When choosing your location, you want to decide what type of scene you’d like to photograph. Within landscape photography, you could photograph the mountains, lakes, deserts, coastal landscapes, rivers and waterfalls, woodlands and forests, national parks, rolling hills, and snowy landscapes – to name a few. Then once you’ve decided on a location you’ll likely have to narrow it down even further to a specific area within that type of landscape. If that all seems a bit daunting to a beginner – see what types of landscapes are local to your area for you to dip your toe in, and go from there. 

If you are looking to go further afield, researching your trip beforehand can save you so much time. Take inspiration from other photographers you like – we’d recommend people like Sam Binding and David Driver for classical landscapes, Graphic.Cal for urban landscapes, and Neil Harrison for seascapes and nature. If there’s a particular photo of theirs you like, see if you can head to the same location and put your own spin on it. Instagram is great for finding new locations, as is Pinterest and blog posts. 

It’s a regular occurrence for every landscape photographer to stumble across a brilliant composition at the wrong time. When this happens, think about what kind of light and conditions you think would work best in the scene. You can then return to the same place to get the shot during those conditions – although this may take a few attempts!

When it comes to landscape photography bad weather is good weather (well, most of the time). If you’re shooting astro, you really need clear weather and no cloud cover, but landscape can be done in all weathers, all seasons. Each season of the year has something unique to offer, so there’s no real “best time of year” to shoot. Yes, you will have your favorites – we bet most landscape photographers will say Fall – but each one is has it’s own beauty to behold.

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

Spring is a beautiful time for photography because you get to experience the world waking up again. Flowers start to appear, baby chicks and lambs are born, and the chilly spring mornings make you long for summer. Some notable things in particular to look out for in spring are dewdrops, bluebells, and lavender. If you manage to find a bluebell patch in the woods, go early in the morning so you capture the golden light rays beaming through the trees. 

Summer is the season of early sunrises and late sunsets. Summer is a difficult season to shoot landscapes in, as there’s often a lot of harsh light and not much interest in the sky. Summer can however, be excellent for astrophotography as there are usually plenty of clear skies. Find your composition during the day, and either set up a tent, or return at night to capture the stars and milky way over a quiet landscape. There’s an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows you where exactly in the sky you can find the sunrise, sunset, moon, and milky way on any given day. This app is great for planning as it removes the guesswork from your trips. You just need to hope for a clear night!

Ah, Fall. The season where most landscape photographers come alive. Our favorite scenes to shoot in Fall are woodlands, rolling hills, waterfalls and rivers. October is usually the best month for finding the most vibrant reds and oranges (in the Northern Hemisphere) – September is a bit too early and November a bit late. Try to find a beautiful winding river through a woodland to shoot in Fall. Bonus points for a rustic cabin. Fall is also great for getting high on the hills or in the mountains and shooting over foggy landscapes. Try including some colorful leaves in your foreground to give the impression of fall.

For most landscape photographers, winter is the least fun season to shoot in. It’s cold, dark, wet, and there isn’t much life to capture. However, this can also create  moody, minimalist images. Photography is art, and if you can make the viewer feel something through your photographs, even if that feeling is a feeling of being cold, then we think it’s a winner. Winter is also a great time to try out photography in the dark as there is much less daylight. You can get some beautiful images that capture the glow of fires and beautifully arranged Christmas lights.

Landscapes for beginners – Editing

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

We’ve always believed that the photo you take is only half the picture. A beautiful photo can easily be ruined by over-editing, or not enhancing the natural beauty captured within the photograph. Here are some tips to get the best out of your images during the editing process.

The two main editing programs most photographers use for editing are Lightroom and Photoshop. There are plenty of other editing software packages available, but these two are a great place to start, especially for beginners. It’s also best to edit on a computer with a large screen if possible to get the best results.

When you’re sat staring at your RAW file on a computer screen, it can be difficult knowing where to start when it comes to editing. We like to start by really looking at what we’ve actually captured in the image, and think about what direction we want to lean into. Think of what type of scene it is, the weather on that particular day, and also the temperature of the image. Really try to get a picture in your mind of how you want the photo to look. This can give you a great starting point when deciding exactly how you’d like the final product to look.

There will be some global adjustments that need to be made, but try to think of your image as a number of different elements. Let’s say for example, you’ve taken a beautiful Fall photo of a waterfall surrounded by trees. The different elements in this photo would be: the main focal point (the waterfall), the framing (the trees), and perhaps a river or some rocks in the foreground. In this scenario you’d likely find that the trees and water are fairly well lit, but the rocks in the foreground are a little dark. In this instance you’d need to increase the exposure to bring back the detail in the rock, but increasing the exposure of the whole image could result in other areas being too overexposed. Being able to identify what each part of your photograph needs in terms of editing can help create a much more balanced and pleasing image. 

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

To edit particular parts of your image, the radial and gradient filter tools are so useful, as well as the adjustment brush. The radial filter adds a round filter to certain parts of the image, which can be useful for adding a vignette effect. The gradient filter adds a filter either upwards, downwards, or across the image – this is great for darkening the sky. The adjustment brush is used for painting certain parts of the image – for example, the dark rock in the foreground. You’d just paint over the rock with the brush and increase the exposure of the selected area. It’s also worth identifying where your light source is coming from, as it will help you determine how much to manipulate the light and shadows on certain objects in your photo.

If you’re a first time Lightroom or Photoshop user, the control panel can be a bit confusing. To help with your editing process, think about which tools are adjustment tools, and which tools are creative tools. Which tools are to do with light, and which tools are to do with color and tone? This will help you know when and where to use certain editing tools on your photograph. 

The tools used to edit the light are exposure, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, and the tone curve. The exposure increases the brightness of the entire image. The highlight slider affects the brighter portions of your image, and if your highlights are a bit too bright you can easily decrease it to bring back some of the detail. The shadow slider affects the darker parts of the image, and you can increase it to bring back any detail lost in the shadows. The white and black sliders affect where the brightest white and darkest black point is in your image. The tone curve can manipulate all the tones in your image if you sit and experiment with it. To start with, try a gentle S-curve by slightly lowering the shadows on the bottom left side, and slightly increasing the highlights on the top right. This will also help add contrast to your image. When it comes to light, keep your eye on the histogram to make sure the image is exposed appropriately. Don’t rely too much on your eyes for this as screens vary, but histograms don’t.

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

The main color tools are the saturation, vibrance, HSL panel, and split toning. The saturation affects the intensity of all the colors and tones in your image. The vibrance boosts the color intensity of the mid-tones only – this can be great for livening up a dull image. The HSL panel can manipulate the hue (shade), saturation (intensity), and luminance (brightness) of each individual color in your image. This is the tool we use most often, but be careful with your colors as you want your landscape photos to look natural and real. Finally, the split toning tool affects the color of the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. We like to warm up the highlights and cool down the shadows, but you should play with it and see what impact it has on your photo.

Other useful tools are the clarity, texture, and dehaze sliders. The clarity adds crispness to your images, but this tool only needs to be used in small amounts as it can add halos around objects in your image and it will instantly look over edited. The texture does what it says, and brings out the natural shapes and textures in your image. The dehaze can help clear up hazy skies or add softness, depending on what look you’re going for.

Different conditions and weathers often call for different styles of editing. A good way to start is to bring out and enhance the best aspects of the season in your photo. You wouldn’t usually want harsh contrast and cool tones on a warm summer’s evening, just like how you wouldn’t necessarily have a particularly warm photo on a winter’s day. 

Spring

Spring is the season of life. We like to enhance the soft, pastel colors in our spring images, and we use lots of greens and earth tones to show new life. You can take either cool or warm photos during spring, depending on what time of day you’ve been shooting. Spring is often great for soft light and rain showers, so editing to enhance this can make a beautiful spring image. 

Summer

Summer can be the most challenging season to shoot in, however you can create some beautiful hazy photographs in the summer. Summer tends to be full of warm, bright colors. So try increasing the temperature of your images to the warmer side, and use the HSL panel to enhance the lush greens and bright blues. If you want to create hazy photos, or if you’d rather eliminate any haze you can do this with the dehaze slider. There is no right or wrong answer with this as it’s a more creative tool, just make sure you don’t go overboard. 

(Image credit: Andy Hartup)

Fall

Fall photographs are some of our favorites to edit as the fall colors are simply stunning. You can use the HSL panel to really bring out those warm reds, oranges, and yellows, and you can even desaturate other colors to make certain tones pop. If there are a lot of fallen leaves in your photo, increasing the texture on the leaves can really enhance the feeling of your photo and make it a lot crisper. 

Winter

Winter photos tend to be cold and harsh, like the season itself. During the editing process you want to really enhance the cold, blue tones and crisp whites by decreasing the temperature slider. Boosting the clarity, contrast, and texture can also add to the harsh winter feeling. Winter landscape photos can be quite minimal, so don’t go too crazy with the editing. You could also consider editing your winter photos in black and white. 

Ultimately, everyone has a different editing style. It does take time and experimentation to figure out your personal editing style, so have a play with the sliders in Lightroom and see what you can come up with! Once you’ve edited a photo, leave it alone. Go to a different room, get a coffee, and give your eyes a rest. Go back to it after 10 minutes (or longer if you’d like) and look at it again. You’ll likely see something you missed the first time round. You may think the photo looks too warm or cool. Going back to the photo helps you look at it from a fresh perspective.

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