Landscape photography is a discipline that many photographers desire to master, but sometimes we take landscapes for granted. We believe that landscapes are just there, waiting with clouds and mountains for us to shoot. The reality is much more complex than that, and there are some things we need to know, and respect, about Landscape photography in order to achieve breathtaking results. Using black and white is a great strategy, but there is more to nature than simply a monochrome conversion of our beloved RAW files, and I'm going to talk a little bit about them today.
Unexplored nature is harder to see nowadays – since humans have explored almost everywhere – but there are still places in the world waiting to be explored by our photographic vision. All disciplined and passionate photographers have their own and peculiar visions of the world, and this broadens the possibilities for achieving great results.
The first step is to scout for them. Scouting can happen many times without you getting the desired shot, or even a single picture, but this is okay. The main goal of scouting is to seek the best location from where you can take an image later.
Scouting is really important, and you must consider certain elements to maximize your previous scout. Due to the nature of having plenty time on your hands, I recommend you start scouting the local landscapes near your home, because starting it when you’re travelling could result in very frustrating outcomes.
Some elements to consider after scouting include:
- Early hours or golden hours of the day at dusk
- Clouds, meteorology, weather, and sunlight hours.
Filters boost photography in a way that no post-production maneuvers could ever render, because they distort reality while the image is being captured. The most conspicuous results are created with ND filters, which alter the exposure by few or several stops depending on their optical configuration and design. Circular polarizing filters are great for landscapes because they reduce or alter reflections into pleasing results, and help highlight the sky by making blue tones darker.
Due to the nature of Monochrome photography, these planned images can be boosted with harsher contrast without unpleasant results.
Learn to interpret reality as Monochrome
All right, this one is hard, I know. Still, you can achieve that vision with practice, or with a bit of cheating. There are two ways to get an instantaneous preview of a scene in monochrome format. The first one involves using a special filter that works more like a viewing device than a camera filter. The other one is to use live-view mode with the monochrome profile activated. Don’t look at live view below your shoulders – it’s a great tool for precise focusing while shooting landscapes.
Sharpness and Vast Depth of Field
It’s no secret that great landscapes are incredibly sharp, which happens thanks to tiny apertures (now you understand why the elite club of Ansel Adams was called Group f/64) and hyper focal-lengths.
The best lens you’ll ever have in your hands could be a sturdy and trusty tripod. The best glass in the world has little to do in front of a magnificent landscape if it is not placed over a sturdy tripod. The reason why landscapes need a firm tripod is because slow apertures and slow exposure times are needed to achieve the best exposure. A tripod will also allow you to use the less-sensitive ISO settings, which have less noise impact on the image (which is great).
After scouting, composing, setting the best filter configuration for the desired shot and clicking the shutter button, you'll have walked only half the road. The other half is about to come. Post-processing in black and white is, without a doubt, more flexible in terms of allowing more extreme setting configurations without getting eerie and odd-looking results. This happens just the same way film acted when it was developed – you could be sloppy when tempering the chemicals still you could manage to get the desired results with a simple arithmetic calculation.
It’s important that you learn how to develop a RAW file, especially in terms of contrast. The most valuable secret for developing any image is to understand how colors interact with each other when converting them into a monochrome version. By contrasting the color channels – by keeping in mind the mechanics of complementary colors for example – you can achieve outstanding results. After that, local adjustments with graduated filters and the key brush (I'm talking Lightroomian here, sorry) will give your images the nudge they deserve.
This is a simple-to-define task, but it requires patience and passion to get the best results. I strongly disagree with photographers who find this part of the photographic workflow tedious. It’s just as important as the shot itself. In the days of film, this was done at both the film development and printing stage, because both required chemicals and care. Ansel Adams was known for being extremely careful with his prints, and that is why his photographs are so desired and famous. It is valuable to learn about his passion in order to understand the importance of the work to be done after pressing the shutter button. Read and study Adams because of his consummate skill, his view of what looked good and the fact that he wrote a lot about these things.
HDR or Tonal Range
More Ansel Adams here. Unfortunately, HDR is presented to us in a democratized form that leads to irresponsible and unaesthetic results. Some say the effects of HDR are "surreal" – but no, when done improperly, they are just ugly pictures. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and the principle is to give a proper exposure to each tonal range of the image. So images with blown-out lights will be correctly exposed, as well as those that are much underexposed.
The thing is, HDR technique can result in images with a high tonal range without either solid whites or solid blacks. Pretty much like the Zone System Ansel Adams created.
When doing HDR, please be careful so you will stay inside the good-looking scope of post-processing.
I never get tired of saying this: please shoot in RAW. This magnificent file format is the exact equivalent of film negatives. Don't restrain your camera's potential just because the files are a little extra-large. This allows you to shoot less, and will impact the quality of your images. Seek quality, not quantity.
Composition is the foundation and the blueprint of a great photograph. The image could be technically perfect in terms of exposure and focus, but if the composition is not interesting, the image itself will crumble in the ephemeral air of social media and the web.
The most important elements to consider when composing landscapes are lines and shapes. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, organic and implied. And shapes are enhanced by slow apertures that capture the sharp beauty of their silhouettes (trees, boulders and mountains).
When importing images into RAW development software, you'll encounter a poorly understood tool called clarity. Many photographers have the wrong idea that clarity improves focus. No: it just gives a sharper feeling. Improving focus in post-production is impossible (nowadays, of course).
Clarity allows you to control the contrast of all the elements of a picture, especially when they are adjacent to differently lit objects (such as the sky, for example). This is fantastic for creating separation of elements, which is really important to maintain texture and tones in a scene that are often the complete opposite of minimalism. Give all the elements the proper space and role in the scene by separating them from their neighboring tones using clarity – just don't overuse it.
An Extra Tip
Improve your black and white landscapes by adding more interest to the image with foreground objects. This will give a richer feeling of depth and even tridimensionality when done right.