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Simple tips to help improve your landscape photography in 2023.

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

The new year is here. Maybe you're thinking about dusting off an old camera or you got one as a gift for the holidays and you're excited to get out there and make some images. That's great! Keeping these tips in mind can help improve your visual awareness when you approach a scene as well as help you to simply create better, more appealing images.

As a photographer for over 30 years, an instructor for 15 and a full time photographer for the last 10, I can honestly and openly say that each of these tips I am going to tell you today, are ones I've had to deal with myself...We all make mistakes and even now, when I get home from a shoot, I'll think to myself, why didn't I shoot from this angle or why didn't I use this lens..

While this will be a refresher course for most people, I am sure there is something we can all take away from this for our next shoot.

This blog is simply based on my personal findings and my own opinions.

Shoot in RAW & Expose to the Right (ETTR)

While cameras are getting better and able to handle more dynamic range, I still believe that if you are shooting single images, it's best to shoot (expose) so that your histogram is as far to the right as it can go without blowing out your highlights. By collecting as much good data as you can, you will get a cleaner image with more data to work with. The more good data you have, the more flexibility you have when it comes to post processing. You can even see this in your data on the images. If you expose an image based on what your camera tells you is correct, and then shoot another image using the ETTR method, you will see a difference in how big the file is. For example 80mb vs 85mb. Now if you blow out your whites then you will see the file size go down. I like to use this analogy - You can't build a 4000 sq ft home with lumber for a 2500 sq ft home... Collecting more good data is always better. It's better to bring down the brightness than it is to have to boost the shadows. The image on the left is my ETTR RAW image. It's 2 full stops brighter than what the camera said was properly exposed. The image on the right just shows you how you can create colorful & detailed images from a single raw file when properly exposed.

In the top image, it was a lower contrast scene. The sun had already set and the light was fairly even. So what do you do when you have a higher contrast scene? You still expose to the right as much as you can. In this side by side comparison I exposed the RAW file on the left just until I was barely clipping the highlights between the trees, then I brought it back a 3rd of stop. It looks blown out but it's not. Don't let your eyes trick you. HDR is good for quite a few scenes but when you have moving water or wind HDR isn't very good unless you want to spend all your time in Photoshop. This is why a single image worked best. In the raw file, by exposing to the right, I was able to bring up just enough shadows so that I didn't have any blacks. In your camera you should be able to set both the whites and blacks to look for clipping. Because not all scenes are the same, I wanted to show you 2 different examples.

Use a tripod

Up until about 4 years ago, I only used a tripod when I really needed it. I was so bad about this. I've learned the hard way and now I use one almost all the time. It's rare these days that I ever do "Single" exposure images - more on this later - but even when I do, I like to have my tripod handy and use to make sure I don't have any shake in my images. As we get into the higher MP cameras, even minimal movement during the exposure can mess up a shot. The higher MP cameras are much more sensitive to camera shake/movement.

Using or not using a tripod can be a make it or break it moment when you're reviewing your images at home full screen. There are many to choose from. I, personally, prefer one without a center column. I've seen too many people set up their tripods, release the center column and extend it all the way. 99% of the time this is a bad decision because it's much more inclined to be a victim of wind. Keeping your camera as close to the base as possible will provide you with much greater stability.

Level Your Images

This is probably the one thing that drives me crazy the most... I haven't seen a camera in over 5 years that doesn't have an internal leveler. My older cameras did not and it was a struggle to get a level image. Even when you have curved backgrounds or things that look uneven, the internal leveler will tell you when your image is level. I'm not so concerned about vertical lines being level, just the horizon. I know plenty of "artistic" photographers who shoot all kinds of subjects and their work isn't and doesn't need to be level. I just feel that if you are a landscape photographer, the scene you're photographing should be level. This can be done in camera or in post processing with almost any photo editing software, even apps that we have on our phones can level images. If you're posting your images on social media it's possible that people see un level images and just pass them right by. If you're still not sure if your image is level here is a trick you can use. Upload your image to any social media site, then when you're viewing your image just scroll up until the horizon is at the edge of the screen, does it match perfectly with the edge of the screen, if so, then it's level.

Include a foreground - Leading Lines

Landscape images should have some sort of front to back - depth in them.

The most common type of foreground is what we like to call leading lines. This is a very vague term but you can find "leading lines" in just about every kind landscape. It can be ripples in the sand at the beach or car trails down a curvy road. It can also be something like the shape of clouds reflecting in a lake or an arrangement of flowers in a desert or meadow. Understanding leading lines or compelling foregrounds is one thing that can really improve your landscape photography. The leading lines help to draw the viewer into your image. Think about walking along the beach and you're not seeing anything than can be a leading line and you don't want to take just a picture of the water. What might you do? That's right, use the incoming waves as leading lines as they come in and go out. This is a shooting technique I teach in my Oregon Coast workshops which is very effective in creating compelling foregrounds for an image.

Bandon Oct 2023

Yachats Oct 2023

We've talked about the basics. We are gonna shoot in RAW, expose to the right using our histogram, use a tripod, level our images and look for compelling foregrounds or leading lines to help draw the viewer in. Now we will dive into some of the editing that can help you. As I said before, it's rare that I shoot single images and that can be for a multitude of reasons. We will now talk about those reasons and why I choose the methods I do.

Learn Photoshop (Generic term for editing)

Even if it's for the most basic adjustments like slight color corrections, contrast, or cropping, post processing can take your images to the next level just by fine tuning them. Remember, when we are shooting in RAW we are just collecting data, it's up to us to do something with that data. Before digital, all images had to be "developed" and it's the same way with your raw files. Once you get the basics down with the sliders in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW then you can slowly work your way into photoshop, layers and masks, dodging and burning ect.. Anything you want to learn is already on Youtube. You can type in simple search terms such as "Basic RAW processing" or "adding a curves layer in photoshop". Regardless of how much you want to learn or use post processing, just remember that every single image you see has been processed in some way.. Even if I take single raw file from my camera and convert it to a jpg to post online, it's been edited. How? Simply by the settings I have used to take the image. If my friend and I are standing next to each other taking a photo of the exact same thing and they use one set of values for the exposure and I use another set of values, the same scene can look totally different.

I wrote a short blog many years ago that helps people to understand this.

This blog still holds true today and if you're not a photographer or very new to photography this may help to better understand the process -

Exposure Blending

This is a post processing method I use quite often. This works well with reflections, sunrises and sunsets when your sky is not able to balance with your foreground in terms of light and dark in one shot. I also use this to the get best image quality possible. When you shoot a reflection shot, the image in the water will always be darker than the image in the sky. This is because the water absorbs light, making the reflection darker. When you see perfectly balanced reflection shots in terms of light and color, they have been edited to some extent.

The image on the left is the one I shot for the sky. I didn't care about anything else, I just wanted a good, well exposed sky. The image in the middle is the image I shot for the reflection, using the ETTR method and you can see that the sky looks blown out. Only a very small portion of it is. This allowed me to get my best exposure for the cleanest image of the reflection in the water. In Photoshop I simply opened both images "as layers in photoshop" this means I put one on top of the other. Think a King of Diamonds and a King of Spades with the Diamonds on top and the spades on the bottom. With the lighter image on top and the darker image on the bottom, I create a mask on the lighter image and use a black brush with about 50% opacity and lightly brush (erase) in the sky. The opacity can vary depending on the images being used but I feel this gives me a very good starting point. By doing this it allows the clouds from the darker image to come though and show up on the lighter image sky. This method doesn't use any complicated selecting and masking that can be a nightmare when you have trees like these. It's a very simple white mask on the top image and then paint on the mask with a black soft edged brush at about 50% opacity.

Here you can see the layers, light on top, dark on bottom. I added a white mask and painted on it with a 50% black brush. That is why the sky is grey not black. If I had used the brush at 100% opacity, it would have been black. If you're not familiar with layers and masks I'd suggest taking a small amount of time when you can to learn. It's a very powerful tool to have at your disposal. The result of this isn't the final image, it's now, just my starting point. Having combined the best of both images, I am now ready to work on the image.

You can always contact me for a zoom session and I'll be happy to help.

Focus Stacking

This is my newest technique for getting images sharp front to back. For many many years I used the hyperfocal technique. This gave good results when you weren't really close to your subject. Even then I don't think it works as well as focus stacking. Focus stacking is just that. You simply focus on the furthest thing or closest thing in your frame and shoot, move the focus ring a tad, shoot again, move it and shoot again. Generally you will want to shoot at your sharpest F stop on your lens which is about 2 stops down from wide open. You may need to test this. If your camera doesn't have a touch screen to auto focus then moving the focus ring will be your best option. The idea is to focus and shoot on all parts of the image from side to side and front to back. I usually get about 20 images when I do this. Once you have your images, you can then load them all into photoshop as layers. Select all the images, make sure the top one is selected and then go down to the last one and hold the shift key and click the bottom image. This will select all images. Once all the images are selected you simply want to go, from the drop down menu, Edit>auto align layers, let it align them. Once that's done you go to Edit>auto blend layers. Be sure to select "stack" not panorama. Photoshop will then analyze the images and combine all the sharpest parts of the images into one image, giving you the sharpest image possible and providing you with much greater depth of field than a single image could do. If you have an autofocus touchscreen on your LCD this makes the focus stacking shooting technique easy. I like to simply do a 4x3 around the edges and then a smaller 4x3 in the center and one image right in the middle. I find this gives me all the images I need.

Change Your Perspective - Don't Always Shoot At Eye Level

I am horrible at this... it's so easy to just walk up to a scene, set up your tripod and start shooting. We buy and use our tripods for many reason but one of them is so we can feel comfortable shooting. As I get older, bending over and getting in odd positions for photography doesn't feel as good on my back as it did when I was younger. Now, that I am more knowledgable in how to compose images, I'm always looking for good foregrounds. Often this means my camera is just a few inches off the ground. This waterfall image you see above was shot with my camera just barely over the water. I could have just stayed up on the trail with my tripod at eye level but that would not have given the same impact to the viewer as you see here. With the cascades just a few feet from the lens and the water flowing right under the camera, this image has a much different feel. This image put the viewer in the scene like they were there. Almost as if they can feel the water splashing on them, as it was doing to me.

Another example of getting lower. Here I was able to kind of use the broken branch on the left as a leading line to the old church. It also helped me to frame the church with the 2 trees. By being down low and closer to the grasses I was able to incorporate them as part of the overall scene.

Want to really give your images a perspective boost...try a drone. For the longest time I was totally against drones. One day a couple years ago, I sat down with myself and had a talk. Thinking about my photography moving forward and the current path I was on, I decided to buy a drone. I was super scared the first time I flew it. I first went to an open field by my house and made sure there were no restrictions - Colorado isn't what I would call a "drone friendly" state. I took off, moved it up and down, side to side, front and back, landed it and called it a day. Each day I got a little bit braver and flew it a little bit further. It doesn't take long to get the hang of it. The images out of a drone are not the best when compared to our real cameras. However, with the software and technology we have today, you can make them just as good. Drones offer perspectives that you simply can't get unless you're flying an airplane. One of the biggest reason I got a drone was to photograph old houses and buildings without trespassing.

I love seeing the old homes & I love seeing them from a birds eye view. By getting up higher it really gives you a "lay of the land" feel and how remote some of these places were. Whenever possible, I try to find the owners of the property and ask permission to be on the property simply out of respect to them. The drone allows me to see these places when I can't obtain that permission and I can fly from a public road.

Shoot the same scene at different times of day or seasons

This is one I really love to do. The images you see above were shot at sunrise (left) and sunset (right). I actually shot the sunset image the night before and then the next morning went back to the same spot and shot the sunrise image. I loved that I was able to get good clouds both times but also have calm waters for a reflection. The light throughout the day changes all the time. Don't be afraid to shoot more than once.

Shooting the same scene in various seasons can give you a great perspective on how things change with the weather. You'll find that some scenes are just more pleasing to look at after a fresh snow. Snow, wether you like it or not, has a magical way of cleaning things up. A hot summer scene that's brown and ugly, can be magically transformed into a beautiful image in the winter.

This is an image I shot the other day after a nice snowfall. In the summer, it's all brown and not very pleasing to look at... When Winter comes and the snow falls, it turns into a winter wonderland.

Thank you for taking the time to read and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I'll be more than happy to answer them for you.

I wish you all the absolute best light in 2023 and I hope all your travels are safe and fun!

All images were created using a Nikon D850, Sony A7r4 or Sigma fp L camera paired with various Sigma lenses. Drone images were captured with a DJI Air 2s.

Darren uses Robus Tripods and Ballheads for maximum stability and sharp images.

Thank you to all the people and companies who support my work. I appreciate you.

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