Sunday, February 20, 2011

Killer Landscape Tips

Landscapes and scenic photos.  Usually all you would expect you need for that is the killer landscape in front of you.  Well it certainly helps, but there is a lot you can do to really step up those landscape photos.  I will cover some of the most popular tricks briefly here.  Including the ones about getting your photos to look like this one, straight out of the camera.


FILTERS

There are many types of filters, some useful in landscape photography, others not so much.  The first filter you should ever buy, (even before that useless UV one) is definitely a circular polarizer.  The next most useful ones for landscape and scenic photography are neutral density filters, with and without gradients.

CIR-POL:  Usually expensive, but well worth it.  I have a 77mm thread on my EF-S 10-22mm and that filter was an easy hundred bucks.  Worth it? Definitely.  Has it broke yet? yes, several times. I wont go into depth about why they work, but I will tell you what they do. Picture a sunny day, lots of foliage by a body of water.  Take a picture without your polarizer. You likely notice some glare on the water, and the leaves dont have that much color.
With the polarizer, you can choose for the water to have reflective or see through properties.  In the image at left, the polarizer was set to see through the water.  This was put together using HDR techniques, so the polarizer alone will not bring everything into balance for you. 

ND Filters: standing for neutral density, they come solid, or with a gradient.  When you are composing landscapes, you will find that the dynamic range can be very high.  In essence, a graduated ND filter will make half the frame one stop (two or three stops) darker than the other half. They come in soft gradients and hard (sharp) gradients.  How does this help? Put the darker half on the top of your frame, and the setting sun instantly becomes darker to your camera.  Thus compressing the dynamic range you camera needs to capture in order to have an evenly exposed image.  In the mountainous sunset example, aiming to keep color in the sunset would mean losing the vital detail in the rocky + snowy foreground.  Stick the dark side of ND gradient filter to cover the sunset and you get a gradual fade from sunset to the foreground.

Choosing ND filters over HDR processing can save hours in post processing, and it is always better to get it done right in the camera.  Where does the gradient ND fail?  Well lets say for instance there is a tree in the foreground spanning the entire height of your frame - With your gradient, it will still darken the upper portion of the tree, and not the lower portion. So the tree itself will gradually fade to shade.  This is offputting in an image.

TAKING THE PICTURE
So we have some of the filters necessary for your camera to 'see the scene properly' but what else can you do to maximize your landscapes?  Well, take the picture right.

Hyperfocal Distance: sounds like it was stolen from a Star Wars movie, but it is very real. There is a single hyperfocal distance for every lens, at every focal length, at every aperture.  The hyperfocal distance essentially represents the maximum distance away from your sensor that your camera can create a focused image through.
To understand this, you first need an understanding of what aperture does.  As your aperture value numbers get larger, the 'hole' your camera sees through becomes smaller. This widens your depth of field.
Hyperfocal distance is no regular depth of field - it is the point your camera must focus on to be sharp to infinity, as well as extending as close to the camera as possible. So tighter apertures extend your depth of field, making it easier to fit more distance into.
How does this affect me? Well on my average scenic shoot, I probably won't touch my camera's focus after the setting it, and keeping it on manual - because I know it is already focused to be sharp at infinity, and whatever else I get sharp in the foreground is icing on the cake. 
Diffraction: makes an appearance at very small apertures. When you are pushing the envelope with your hyperfocal distance, you may ask, why not hit f/32 and capture the distance from the dust on my lens to the mountains in the distance?  In short, once you exceed a threshold somewhere in the neighborhood of f/16, everything may appear to be sharp, but viewed at 100% nothing will be 'tack sharp'. There is a long explanation for this involving the mechanics of light, and glass that I will not get into. Just remember, f/11 is usually just peachy for landscapes.

Tripod: If you are shooting at f/11 at ISO400 or lower, especially with filters, chances are your exposure times will be in the area of 1/4sec to 4 seconds.  Needless to say - you can't shoot like this without a tripod. End of discussion.

Triggers: Anytime you shoot on a tripod you still introduce shake when you hit the shutter with your finger.  To counter this, purchase a wired, or infrared remote trigger for your camera. The slightest bit of shake really does hurt. If you cannot afford a trigger at the moment, start using your camera's timer function. Maybe you have to wait 10 seconds between each photo, but it will show in the results.

Exposure: I like to bring everything I shoot right to the threshold of exposure. Shooting in manual, and keeping 'highlight alerts' on will help here.  I aim to see just the slightest bit of flashing black in my previews. It means you have the exposure as bright as possible, without losing information, and so will have as much detail available straight through into the shades as possible.

In almost all of the photos in this post, you will see one small fraction of the image appears to be borderlining on pure white. That is essentially the spot I take my exposure reading from.

There you have it, a little insight into the considerations I have for every single frame I make at a scenic location.

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