Seven Steps to Landscape Photography: Approaching an Outdoor Scene

I was talking to a surgeon a few years ago and mentioned, "Surgery seems so complex.  How do you approach each situation that seems so different?" Her reply was simple and startled me.

"Joel.  I know the procedures, and I do them the same way every time.  That way I don’t miss anything." For emphasis, she repeated herself, "The same way every time."  I thought this was sound advice for many processes that we have in life, and especially true in photography.  The complexities of dSLRs, lenses, exposures, external filters, and cable releases can be more than frustrating to the beginning photographer and even the professional if the photographer does not follow the same steps every time.  Errors are minimized and time is used more efficiently.

Below is an outline of my approach to a landscape scene.  Some of the steps may seem elementary to some, but they are good to review and reflect on in your own approach to a landscape scene and how it could be more streamlined.  I should reiterate that these are personal steps for approaching a landscape scene, and it will be important that individual photographers develop a system that "feels" right.

1. PREVISUALIZATION.  Ansel Adams in his book, The Negative, describes the concept of seeing the scene in the mind before the photographer takes the picture.  For me, this not only means transforming the scene in my mind to a possible future print, but also actually going to the place the night before and deciding where I want to be at 5 a.m.  This eliminates stress during the time I should be assembling my equipment and composing the scene.

2. SETTING UP THE TRIPOD.  Once I’ve pre-selected the scene, I then set up my tripod to the height that I have predetermined.  If I wanted to be closer to a foreground element, I may splay the legs as I did in the photograph "The Road Map" in Canyonlands National Park.  My friends were laughing at me, hunched on the ground trying to shoot what appeared to be an uninteresting crack in the rock overlooking the White Rim Trail.  If I decide on a higher approach, I may leave the tripod very high and then tilt the camera down to include more of the landscape and less of the sky.

3. INITIAL SETUP.  After attaching my camera, complete with cable release or remote release, I double check to make sure my settings are exactly how I want them.  The settings were reviewed the night before, as the routine dictates, but now I run through them to be sure all is well.  For landscape photography, photographers should always shoot in RAW.  Too much is at stake and the post-processing will need all the information it can get.  Then I check the ISO.  I’m on a tripod, so I will shoot in 50 or 100 ISO.  In any case, shoot in the lowest ISO possible so that the final image has the least amount of grain.   Finally I check the aperture and shutter speed settings.  I usually start in Av or Aperture Priority mode.  Setting the aperture from f/11 to f/16 will give me excellent depth of field for a landscape scene.  Some photographers suggest that stopping down all the way to f/22 or smaller will not give much added benefit and only increase the shutter speed time.

Once the aperture is selected, I review the shutter speed time that the camera has selected.  Why?  Habit, probably.  I don’t really care if the camera has chosen 1 second or 2 seconds as I am on a very sturdy tripod and will use mirror lockup to further decrease the risk of micro vibration on the final image.

4. MIRROR LOCKUP.  After the settings are ready, I ensure that mirror lockup is enabled, which can be found in the main menus of most dSLRs.  With a cable release connected or a remote activated, the mirror in the camera can be locked up with one click of the button and then released after 6 – 10 seconds after micro vibrations in the camera system have stopped.  Why 6 – 10 seconds?  My friends and I at in Salt Lake City tried using multiple cameras, different lenses, and different tripods to see how long it would take for the camera to settle down.  Live View greatly helped in seeing these micro vibrations, and we felt that most vibration in the Carbon 6X tripods was gone after six seconds, but remained for additional seconds in the Basalt and certainly the aluminum tripods (which can last much longer).

5. SHOOT THE SCENE.  Now I take the image and review both the LCD image and the histogram.  Is everything there in terms of information?  Are there spikes on the left or the right?  Does the image look correct?  At this point, I make adjustments to the composition by recomposing the scene, and I also make adjustments to the exposure using exposure compensation.    By simply moving the exposure compensation (EV) up or down, the photographer can increase or decrease the overall exposure of the scene.  This is usually good up to two stops of difference.  If two stops of difference is not enough to bring the scene into my histogram, then I remember my aperture setting, switch to manual mode and set the aperture to the same setting and start to dial only the shutter speed to adjust the exposure.  This way, the shooter can go above or below the two stop maximum in aperture priority.

6. FOCUSING.  At this point, it is key to review the image to make sure it is in focus.  Many photographs have been ruined by small problems with focusing.  Do this now, even though the light is really developing well.  The 10 seconds to do this will be infinitely helpful.  I perform this in Live View, and that way I can adjust my manual focus tilt-shift lens at the same time.  I choose an area about one-third of the distance in front of me and the horizon. Why?  Usually twice as much distance beyond this point will be in focus while only one half of that will be in focus in front of that point.  If I focus only on the horizon line, the foreground elements will be out of focus.

7. REGIONAL ADJUSTMENTS.  Now that the photographer is sure that the focus is correct, the composition is excellent, and the exposure is good, it’s time to concentrate on how to maximize the proper exposure.  Both sunrise and sunset tend to be high contrast times where the difference between the light in the sky and the light on the foreground can be up to 14 stops wide!  This is acceptable for the human mind to differentiate, but too much even for the best of cameras, which tend to do best in the 3-stop range.  You have several options at this point.  The photographer can bracket the exposures (shoot a dark exposure, shoot one where the camera would like it, and shoot one brighter than the camera would like it).  Photoshop can simply and fairly efficiently combine these images under File - > Automate - > Merge to Pro HDR.  There will be plenty of options for fine tuning this HDR image, as even books have been written simply on refining this process.

I still enjoy fine-tuning the image in-camera with a circular-polarizer or warming circular-polarizer and a selection of graduated neutral density filters.  I will often increase the exposure slightly more than the camera would like, and then handhold a graduated neutral density in front of the lens with my left hand and click the shutter twice (mirror lockup) with my right hand.  This way, I can darken the sky a bit with the dark portion of the filter and allow the foreground light to come through to the sensor unobstructed.  I can select a denser filter if the sky is too light or select a lighter density filter if I have darkened the sky too much.

As the surgeons, I try to run a precise operation, doing the same thing, every time.  Major adjustments to my personal routine will only foul up a system that has proven to bring me results.  There will always be a minor adjustment in curves or levels or exposure in post-processing, but I am consistently able to capture the best light if I am prepared and ready for the action when it shows up!

Bottom Line:  To become comfortable with a process, you have to practice it over and over.  Try to simplify your process by always putting your gear in the same place, cleaning it, recharging batteries, repacking it in the same way, every time.   You will become a photographic machine, a precise and efficient photographer not to be reckoned with.


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Camera settingsCanyonlands national parkFebruary 2012FocusIsland in the skyJoel addamsLandscape photographyMirror lockupOutdoor photographyPhotography instructionPrevisualizationSchleimplug principleSetting up the cameraTilt-shift lens