Depth Of Field
If you have any questions, comments
or have spotted glaring errors, please feel free to email
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
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
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
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,
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
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
- 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
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
- 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.