The Landscape Photographer's Checklist
The first thing we learned when I was going through primary pilot training was the importance of using a checklist. The human brain is an amazing thing but it is not infallible. A checklist helps organize important tasks and makes it easy to recall them at the appropriate time. This is especially helpful in situations where you can become "task-saturated"...too much going on to remember everything.
In an aircraft, the complications that can result from task-saturation and overload are obvious. I knew a pilot a few years back who flew a night flight from California to Colorado. On reaching his cruise altitude, he could not get the proper performance from the aircraft. He was consistently about 40 knots slower than what he should be cruising at. This went on for the whole trip. After he landed in Colorado, he noticed a long rope with the remnants of a cement block tied to the tail of the plane...his rear tie-down...which he forgot to untie before he left. He pulled it right out of the ground and flew the whole flight with a cement "anchor" in tow. Fail.
Are you new to landscape photography? Do you find yourself trying to capture a great sunrise only to find yourself fumbling around for the right exposure settings or that filter you left back in the car, all the while the sun is making it's glorious arrival? You manage what you can only to find when you get home to your computer and load up the day's photography work that you completely blew it? Maybe a checklist will help. A checklist can not only help organize your shoot but it can make learning much more enjoyable as well. It will help you achieve results which in turn will motivate you to keep shooting.
So I've added my "Landscape Photographer's Checklist" to the blog to help anyone who might be starting off in the wonderful world of landscape photography and wants to increase their consistency in getting sharp, quality images. This checklist incorporates the solutions to many common issues new landscape photographers face and it's my hope that it will help you too.
#1: Use the lowest ISO your camera is capable of. For most cameras, this is ISO 100. If yours can do ISO 80 or 50, use it. The reason is that low ISO produces the best image quality. The higher you travel up the ISO scale, the more grain noise will be introduced into your image. Remember tostay low on the ISO.
#2: Try to use an aperture between f/8 and f/13. Deciding what aperture to use is always a trade-off. Landscape photos are generally of a wider area than other types of photography so depth of field is important. For depth of field, you want to avoid very large aperture settings. But sharpness and image quality are also very important. Therefore you should also avoid really small aperture settings as these will cause diffraction which will affect the sharpness of your image. Using the mid-range 8-13 works the best in most situations and/or as a starting point. As a general rule, select an aperture smaller only if it’s required for depth of field. Remember that 8 to 13 keeps your image clean!
#3: Turn off auto exposure and use either aperture priority (Av) or manual. Using your auto exposure will many times ruin a great landscape photo. Landscape photography is an art and therefore created by an artist, not a machine. Most landscapes require different settings than what the camera would automatically choose. One example would be a dusk setting where you want to get the deep colors of the sky and wish the foreground to be completely black. The camera will choose a very large aperture because there is low light. This will completely destroy the depth of field and make your sky fuzzy. Also, in it’s attempt to expose the image properly, it will actually overexpose the image trying to get as much detail in the foreground as it can, thus completely destroying the colors in the sky. As the artist, you need to override the auto settings and set them according to what you want from the image…your art.
#4: Shoot in RAW format. While RAW files are bigger and require a translator to edit, they also give you a huge amount of post-processing options. One of the best is the ability to change your white balance with the press of a button. And now days, storage media capability is huge making file size less important and most processing software such as Photoshop and Lightroom have a RAW translator. So why not just make it official?
#5: Use a tripod. The less camera shake, the better image quality you will get, and a tripod will prevent 95% of any camera shake you deal with. And since you will be using relatively smaller aperture settings (f/8 to f/13 as a start), in many situations hand-holding is simply not an option. Get as sturdy of a tripod as you can afford. If you plan on trekking a ways for your shots, consider getting a carbon fiber tripod. They are expensive but it will be one of the best purchases you will ever make. Finally, don’t forget a solid tripod head; something easy to adjust but also one that locks down solid once you adjust it. Remember that supporting your camera supports your image quality!
#6: Turn off the auto focus and use hyperfocal distance. Without getting technical, hyperfocal distance is the relationship between the focal length of your lens and the aperture you have it set at. Setting the hyperfocal “distance” will focus the lens so as much of the image as possible is in focus.
#7: Use a remote shutter switch or cable. This is another tool to help prevent camera shake. Since you are not touching the camera, there is less chance of you being the cause of that frustratingly-blurred photo. Remember that using a cable makes your image more stable.
#8: Use the mirror lock/delayed shutter option. Most DSLR’s have a delayed shutter option (usually 2 or 5 second delay). When activated, you press the shutter button like you usually do but instead of immediately taking the shot, the camera first flips up the viewfinder mirror, waits a few seconds, and then trips the shutter. This is yet another tool to help prevent camera shake. Even the movement of the mirror can introduce a bit of shake. By waiting a couple seconds before taking the picture, the camera is allowing any shake caused by the movement of the mirror to dissipate. For the new photographer, mirror-induced shake can be a very frustrating cause of slightly-blurred photos. Remember that shutter delay means less sway!
#9: Resist at all costs the urge to “point and shoot”. We’ve all done it. We see a beautiful scene, we whip out the camera, point it dead center on the horizon, and snap away. I call this "shotgun photography"...center the target in the crosshairs and pull the trigger. While this is the preferred method if you are trying to shoot your dinner, it doesn’t produce very compelling images in photography. Stop and think before you push the shutter button. What am I taking a picture of? What is compelling me to take this picture? What's the main subject? What could you do to improve the composition? Different angle? Different lens? Different time of day? Rule of thirds? Adding or removing an element from the scene? I guarantee you that your first instinct will usually not produce the best composition. That’s how it is with me. Remember that good composition begets good compensation!
#10: The “rule of thirds” is a landscape photographer’s best tool. While there is no photographic rule that is set in stone and your only real “rule” is your interpretation of a scene, generally most landscape compositions benefit from a proper use of the rule of thirds. And since it successfully fits into most landscape compositions, it’s a good starting point for determining your composition, especially when you are just starting to learn. Once you start using this rule, your artistic eye will open and you will start to “see” as a landscape photographer sees, making it much easier to successfully determine your own style regardless of the rules.
#11: The “golden hour” is a landscape photographer’s best friend. The golden hour starts at sunrise and ends 1 hour after. It also begins 1 hour before sunset and ends at sunset. Taking your photos during these “golden hours” can be the difference between an average shot and a breath-taking one. Your camera captures light, and the best combination of quality light and shadows exists during these times. Remember that early to rise gets the photographer the prize!
#12: Better image quality is achieved when you modify the original light with a quality filter than trying to change pre-recorded pixels in post-processing. This statement is a bit controversial these days. With all the advances in post-processing software, it’s easy to think that filters are a thing of the past. While in some instances this is true, it’s also still true that trying to modify pixels usually degrades your image, even if it is slight. As an example, try increasing an images fill light by 30% or so in Photoshop or Lightroom. The image becomes very grainy with lots of unwanted noise. This is because you can’t add what isn’t there, and the original photo didn’t include what you are trying to add (highlights in dark areas). While it works quite well for slight enhancements, it can be a disaster for major manipulations. The traditional way to “add fill” is to use a filter up front (graduated neutral density filter) to control the dynamic range in the image. In this case you are modifying the original light and then recording that modification…you are adding to the image using it’s source light and the resulting image will contain the effect as well as the pixels you need. Remember to modify the light, not the byte!
There it is! My "Landscape Photographer's Checklist". I came up with this list from my own experience making my share of mistakes when I ignored them. They aren't the only items that could be included on a checklist but to me they are the most important to getting great images. Good luck and happy shooting!