Landscape tutorial
Depth Of Field

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Landscape Photography.

I used to devour photography magazines and books in the hope that they would somehow magically pass to me the ability to take great photos. What I learnt, at times with the petulance of a teenager, is that people can teach you tricks, tips and bits of advice, but you aren’t going to put down the magazine or this article and suddenly be able to take great photos. I can’t make you a great photographer; only you can do that. What you need to do is to take this (and other people’s) advice and “run with it”. Make it your own. Experience and, ironically, failure are often the best teachers. The best I can hope to do is give you ideas to try out or make you want to reject my advice and do something completely different to what I suggest. Either way your personal experience will always win out, providing you are willing to invest time in it and, more importantly, learn from your experiences.


Camera:The camera you have. As simple as that. I’m not going to get into any discussion on the merits of one system over another here, as most people who read this aren’t about to ditch the camera they have in favour of a different one. If you seriously want advice on systems or formats that are geared towards landscape photography, contact me direct. What I will say is this: Try switching off as many of the automatic features as possible. You will slow down, but you will gain more knowledge about what you are doing and the influence it has on the final outcome.

Film: Get used to a particular film. I don’t just mean by brand; I mean by film type such as Kodak Portra, Fuji Provia or Fuji Velvia. Professional film, as you’d expect, is so much better than a generic film from your local camera shop. An extra pound/euro/dollar or two here is money well spent. In landscape photography you have to deal with light and how it changes through out the day or night, so once you find a film that you are happy with and produces colours that you like, try and stick with it. You will soon see the benefits as you will have greater accuracy in predicting colour casts, colour correction (if needed) and how a scene will expose on the negative or transparency. Overall, I think Fuji Velvia is probably the most widely used film for landscape photography. It’s a colour transparency film, so make sure you are accurate on your exposures. It has wonderful contrast and great rendition of colour and in particular green tones, hence it’s widespread use.

Digital: Get used to the way in which your camera records colour and noise. Try and predict how the auto white balance will cope in situations or set it yourself. (I always shoot RAW so I can white balance after capture because I find it easier).

Get used to your equipment. Learn how it works and fits together. If you use filters, try to be consistent and keep them in the same pockets in your camera bag and, even better, label them clearly. If you are trying to capture sunsets or sunrises, the light changes fast! You need to know what you’re doing, and how quickly you can set up your tripod, fit your filter system, switch on the camera, compose the shot, meter, focus, check DOF, check your composition again and then press the shutter.

Lenses:There are no must haves; you can take landscapes with anything. However, that said, the most common lens you will use is a wide angle lens. For a 35mm film camera that’s around 28mm through to 35mm, or 17/18mm for most digital SLRs. These are great for sweeping vistas or for generating a sense of depth. For example, if you take a shot with the camera held vertically (portrait format rather than landscape) and point the lens down by about 10-30 degrees, you will exaggerate the foreground and create a much more distorted perspective. This is very useful for creating foreground interest and leading the eye into the frame.

My next recommendation would be a good zoom lens, something around a 70 to 210mm focal length on a 35mm system. Traveling as light as possible is always a good idea, especially if you are out from sunrise to sunset; it’s a very long time to be carting around 4 to 5 lenses, a couple of camera bodies, etc. Longer focal lengths help you create more abstracted landscapes by compressing distances between objects so helping make patterns stand out. Plus, they give you extra reach as some shots you want will be just too hard to reach on foot.

Tripod: Again you don’t absolutely need one. I’ve taken some great landscape shots without them. However, they are bloody useful. Under the cover of trees or at the extremes of the day they enable you to use those much slower shutter speeds and therefore smaller apertures like f22 or f35, giving you a fantastic depth of field. My tripod lives in my car so it is always at my disposal and it *always* goes out with me when I go out to take landscape shots.

Filters: They can be an unnecessary clutter to carry around. Once you get used to using, them, you will find that they will multiply rapidly. Once this happens you will probably find yourself reducing them back to the bare essentials. With the widespread use of digital cameras these days, filters have much less importance. This is especially true for the use of colour correction filters which can be emulated in Photoshop, so I’ll just cover 3 types: The Polarizer, Solid Neutral Density and Graduated Neutral Density.

Polarizer filter: This will help you to create rich, blue skies as long as the sun is out of your frame. It can also be used to reduce or remove reflections on bodies of water and therefore reduce potential hotspots creating a more pleasing image.

Solid Neutral Density: These are semi-opaque filters that restrict light entering the camera. They are usually grey in colour and come in a variety of shades. Put simply, they allow you to use a shutter speed slower than what you could achieve without the filter. This means that if, on a bright day, you want to create motion blur, then you can put one or more of these filters in front of your lens and meter again using your camera. (If you meter with a hand-held meter, it gets much trickier as you need to know the strength of you filter in “stops”.)

Graduated Neutral Density: This type of filter, as its name suggests, is graduated. They also come in different shades, but are mainly into two types. One is graduated from grey on one edge to clear on the opposite edge. The other type has a much shorter graduation, usually around the middle of the filter. Both of these filters are used to help balance the exposure between sky and land. The sky will always meter differently from the ground, which you can see for yourself. Go outside; take a meter reading from the sky and then one from the ground. You may be surprised at the variation between the readings..

Back to Basics.

Landscape photography is perhaps one of the most basic forms of photography in its simplicity and ease of reach. You do not need expensive cameras and equipment; you don’t need a studio; you don’t need to hire models, lights or props; you don’t need people of any kind (though they can be good for adding a sense of scale). Therefore, landscape photography will live or die by the basics: composition, exposure, depth of field and focusing.


Invariably what you want to photograph will be immobile; the only part of the scene that will move are the clouds, and you can not control them. Therefore, you are the one that has to move to the picture you want from the scene in front of you. If you’ve learnt the basics of composition, for example: the rule of thirds; the use of foreground interest; creating balance and the use of symmetry and pattern, then you have the raw tools at your disposal to create a good photograph. The scene in front of you will not respond to direction. You have to learn how to interpret what you see. Some people “feel” their way around, they intuitively “know” how to compose a shot. Others are far more methodical, recognising key elements and vocalising to themselves, mentally ticking off elements that they want to include. To be honest, I fall somewhere in the middle. I tend to compose instinctively, recognising key elements to include in the frame without really thinking about them (on a good day, that is). Then I check what I see in the viewfinder against a set of criteria, for example: “Where’s my horizon? Is it in the centre or on a third? Does it work where it is? Yes = click; No = right, where does it go instead?”

Obviously it doesn’t rest on just one element. In landscape photography you have time to compose and recompose, so use it to your advantage. Trees will not rush you to press the shutter. The only times you have to work fast are at sunrise, sunset, or during extremely variable weather conditions. With practice, “seeing” will become more and more like second nature and your composing will speed up and your success rate will increase.


All photography is based on light. However, landscapes are affected much more by exposure as the sky—which is the source of light—invariably will form at least part of your image. All I can advise is practice, practice, practice. Every camera will expose differently. My previous digital camera was almost permanently set to -1/3 of a stop exposure compensation as it tended to slightly overexpose. Underexposure is generally better than overexposure, because underexposing saturates colours, which is a good thing. Underexposed shadows retain more detail than over exposed highlights; once highlights are blown out, they are gone. Finally, you can lighten an image later on in the darkroom or by using Photoshop.

Be aware of what’s in your image: is the sun there? Is it in full view? Is it behind a cloud? Is it reflecting off surfaces? Is there foreground detail you wish to capture? If the scene has very different levels of brightness, it is a good idea to take multiple readings from the lighter and darker areas of the scene. This allows you to determine if you need to underexpose, overexpose or leave as is. Hand-held meters are also useful here, as you can take a reading from a neutral surface such as a grey piece of card. The reason why hand held meters are so good is consistency. If you meter off the same piece of card then you quickly become used to the results the meter gives you and the subsequent results you get from your images. This way you can adjust your exposure accordingly and be more confident of your results. No metering system is infallible, but we, as people, have the advantages of memory and the ability to take notes about exposure and light conditions which can be used for future reference.

Depth of Field (DOF) and focussing

These two are intrinsically linked. As a general rule, you are more likely in landscape photography to want a greater DOF than a shallower one. If you aren’t using the manual setting on your camera, I suggest using Aperture Priority as the next best option as it is generally more important than shutter speed. As you often have the time to set up a shot, it is a good idea to get used to focusing your camera manually or at least taking control of where it focuses. You can do this by using the focus lock or switching the auto focus (AF) point to one you choose rather than chosen by the camera. This is where proper manual focus lenses come into their own. When I’m doing night photography, for example, I wish that my wide angle AF lens had focus markings. It’s almost impossible to focus through the viewfinder, but I can tell that the subject is about 5m from my camera. If my lens had distance markings, I could gauge much more easily where I should focus.

One tip to remember is that you don’t have to focus on the farthest object. If you want sharp front-to-back focus in an image, first you want to “stop down” your aperture to as small as possible, as this will increase your depth of field. Don’t focus on the farthest point or the nearest. Remember, depth of field works both behind *and* in front of your focus point. If you focus at infinity, you waste some of your DOF because there is nothing beyond infinity and some closer objects may be out of focus. Think of DOF as a spotlight pointing down at your subject. The point of focus on your lens is the centre of the spotlight and the DOF is the spread of the light. Picture it covering your scene with the full spread and focus accordingly. Again, experience and experimentation will teach you how much DOF you get at certain focal lengths and from focusing at certain distances.

Hey Good Lookin’

Landscape photography is primarily about pretty pictures. There is room for more conceptual photography and social commentary, but most landscape additions are about creating pleasing images, that should evoke emotions from the viewer. I don’t think landscape and, in particular, nature photography is something that you can do dispassionately. You need to be able to appreciate the scenery and then try and capture what you feel. If looking over a loch or across a mountain doesn’t tug at your emotions, then don’t even think about landscape photography; it’s not for you. If you want to concentrate on smaller, tighter landscapes (like details of woods) rather than sweeping vistas, then you need to be even more appreciative of the diversity and life they contain. In essence, there has to be, for want of a better word, at least a “romantic” part of you that is inspired by what you see and delights in the details of the natural world.

How does this passion tie in to the basics? Well, passion is all well and good for most of us, although there are photgrpahers whose work almost oozes passion; these are the ones who you can tell are very passionate about the landscapes they take and the world they observe. Really good photographers like these often seem to be those who are instinctive, who feel their way to a good shot and have a huge store of patience.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we need to learn how to take our passion and direct it. This is where the basics of photography come in: understanding how composition and the basics of photography work will help you immeasurably, as you will be able to support what you see and feel and in turn enhance your image. You will start to recognise what you are looking at and where you can find an image in the scenery in front of you. There are many times I’ve looked at a scene and gone “there’s an image in there”, but have struggled to capture it. These are the frustrating times when you either rely on a very emotive audience or persevere and push yourself to look in different ways and try, try, again.

Let there be light

Throughout the day, the light changes in colour, angle and intensity. At pre-dawn and dusk the light is very blue, softer, weaker and more diffuse as it is the light from the sun is not direct, but is refracted through the atmosphere. If you don’t want this blue colour (though it can be very effective),then you either use a “warm-up filter” (orange or brown in colour) or do this in Photoshop. Either is a valid method and it’s useful to learn both.

Sunrise and Sunset: Characterised by long shadows and usually by a golden light that is very flattering, especially to skin tones, usually better at sunset for skin. As well as photographing the actual sunset and sunrise themselves, be aware that they will bathe trees, hills etc. in their warm light. This can be very effective for autumn scenes, as the colour of the leaves is heightened by the golden light. This can be very effective against a north or south-facing sky (or to the side which is opposite to the rising/setting sun).

Midday: Generally not so good, as you get very harsh shadows. However, you can still take good photos; you just need to be aware of where the light is and what the shadows are doing. Working under the cover of trees is quite good around this time of day, as you can get some very interesting patterns through the foliage.

Night-time: Currently this is a source of fascination for me. Cloud cover, a visible moon, visible stars and light pollution will all affect your exposure. Under a full moon you may have an exposure that lasts for a minute at ISO 100, rather than for 40 minutes under cloud cover at ISO 400. The only advice I can give here is to experiment and record your exposure and the weather conditions, especially was the lunar phase, it will help in the future if you have these to refer back to.


Most people stay in when it’s raining. If your weather report is giving you showers and variable weather conditions, get out there! Dark brooding skies behind a sunlit landscape are wonderful subjects, very evocative and menacing. The variable weather conditions can bring about some wonderful juxtapositions of light and dark as well as some very interesting colours to the light.

Move your ass

Your models won’t move so you have to. You need to get used to moving yourself around and changing your angle of view. This is where prime lenses (lenses that have a fixed focal length rather than being a zoom) excel. If you have a zoom, there is a temptation to stand in one spot and adjust the zoom until “stuff fits”. This is helpful, but it can make you lazy and in turn, weaken your image. Sometimes you need to put yourself through the wringer to get the shot: lie down on the wet/cold/muddy ground, straddle a river balanced on rocks or with your feet in the water, or climb a tree to get the higher perspective. Don’t be afraid to try something different, but don’t be stupid; hanging off a rock face by one hand is not a good idea. This relates back to the basics of composition and directing your passion. It’s rarely enough to stand in front of a scene, lift your camera and click the shutter.

Include / Exclude

This is closely linked to the previous topic. Often you will look at a scene and be amazed, at which point you take the photo and it turns out to be a cluttered mess. It is as important to know what to leave out as it is what to include. This is especially true for more “natural” forests. Any place with lots of undergrowth and plant life can easily create very busy images. Being able to isolate the key point of interest that really grabs your attention and surround it with the elements that place it in its environment is a talent. Essentially, you should not be afraid of looking at details within a landscape. Feel free to focus on those rather than just the wide sweeping vistas.

Plan or not Plan?

Both have their place. There have been many times I’ve decided to go out on a whim because the weather looked good or because I was bored. It is entirely possible to do this and get some good shots, which can be rewarding because I wasn’t planned. Nevertheless a little planning will go a long way.

My last trip out was a bit of both. I looked out Sunday morning and saw the weather was nice, so I decided to ditch what I had planned for the day and get out with my camera. I spent 30-40 minutes poring over a map and it paid dividends: it showed me a good place to end up, a small town on the West Coast, where I could wait for the sun to set. I knew this town had a castle that jutted out on the beach, classic material for sunset photography. Even better, I could see along the route that there were places along the way that might also be of interest.

Planning is deceptively easy; the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Use this axiom as a guide to know where to start and where to finish your day: will your subject be silhouetted against the sun or will it lit by the light that hits it at the end of the day? Which side of the mountain/forest do you need to finish on? Simple considerations such as this can help you achieve great shots. For example, if you want to photograph a sunset, arrive a good 30-60 minutes before the light gets really interesting. Have a look around and try predict where the sun will end up (there are sun compasses that will do this for you). Knowing the place/scene that you want to photograph will allow you to set up your camera and wait. For sunrise, ideally you need to have been there before so you know where to go and set up and wait for the light to appear. The dilemma that can hit you here is if you see a potential shot that you hadn’t expected, do you rush to take it or do you continue to wait for the shot you’ve set up for? This is purely a personal decision. I’d probably go after the unexpected shot, as if you’ve planned to take a shot once, you can always plan to take it again. It is a hard call to make, though.

Some hints and tips.

  • Horizon: Watch your horizon line; it’s very easy to leave it halfway through a frame. This can work when you are looking for symmetry, but try placing it higher or lower. Watch out that it is not tilted. This can be corrected in Photoshop, but it’s better to correct in-camera.
  • Foreground interest: If you are shooting sweeping vistas, having some foreground interest really helps make a photo interesting. It also helps if there is something that the viewer can get a sense of scale from, such as a fence, house or another person. Natural objects like rocks can be very misleading in providing a size or scale reference.
  • Water: This can add a great deal of interest and movement to an image, be it a stream, lake or sea. If you are shooting on the coast, you may find a UV filter very useful for cutting out haze. Using slower shutter speeds will create a soft, almost cotton wool-like water, especially if it has quite a bit of movement. This is great for pictures of the sea set against rocks.
  • If you’re in the woods, try shooting into the light to get strong shadows. Avoid flare by putting the sun behind a tree. You can also reduce lens flare by using smaller apertures and a lens hood.
  • You can use the sun to create strong silhouettes and backlight details such as leaves, flowers and ferns.
  • Don’t be afraid to put on the telephoto lens and go looking for natural details. As well as stunning vistas there is a wealth of detail, pattern and form in the smallest of objects.
  • Use the forms of the landscape to your advantage. If you are somewhere that has lots of tall, thin fir trees, then use them. Lie down and shoot upward; use the converging verticals to give a great sense of scale.
  • Even when shooting wide vistas, try to identify a focal point. This will help move your shot away from being a simple photographic record towards being a stunning photograph.
  • Framing: Use elements like trees, fences or gateposts to create a frame within a frame. This helps give the viewer a sense of being in the picture.
  • Get to know the seasons. Every country and climate has different seasons along with the benefits and drawbacks they bring with them. For example, early May in the UK is a great time for shooting bluebells, the woods being carpeted with these small but vivid flowers. If you know little things like this you can start to make time when you need to.
  • Get out and explore your landscape. Spend the time getting to know it and seeing what it has to offer.

Non Photo Stuff

I’ve added this section here because you may find yourself spending a full day walking around looking for shots. Often the best images are isolated and far away from civilisation. If you are used to city living, you may be surprised at how sparsely populated the countryside is and how much you miss the easy access to anything you might want or need.

  • Take back with you what you took out. If you appreciate the landscape then don’t ruin it for others.
  • Good boots. If you are spending a while outdoors, wear comfortable footwear, especially if you are doing a lot of walking. You will need footwear that is comfortable, supporting, protective and preferably waterproof.
  • A comfortable camera bag. I succumbed and bought a Lowepro rucksack: expensive but comfortable to wear for long periods and while scrambling up a hill as well as offering good protection for my gear.
  • Maps. If you’re lucky you can drive around and step out of your car, walk for a few minutes and grab a good shot. You are more likely to need to search for subjects. Road maps are no substitute for a map geared towards a walker, which will show you landmarks, features and tracks. It is surprisingly easy to get lost. It’s always a good idea to learn basic orienteering skills in case you do get lost.
  • Spend a few minutes before you go out, thinking what you would do if you did get lost, trapped or injured while out. The one minute spent leaving your housemate a note saying where you’ve gone could save your life. If you are out in the mountains or hills, there is a very good chance you mobile won’t work, so don’t think you can rely on being able to phone for help.
  • Carry water with you.
  • Dress sensibly.
  • Waterproofs: as I live in England I’ve found waterproof trousers a great boon. If you wear them when you are out in the forest or a similar environment, then you can lie down without having to worry about getting water or mud all over your clothes.

I will be adding to this article in the future. If you wish to comment on this article, please email me with this link. I will be adding in a comments page later. If you wish to ask me a question email me from this question link, I will also extend this article by answering any questions submitted.






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