Landscape Photography Essentials

Landscape Photography Essentials

Landscape Essentials – by Jackie Ranken

Landscape photography is about the maker and the viewer. The maker is the photographer (you) and the viewer is the person who views your image who view your image from their own perspective with their own bias, their own likes and dislikes. A landscape photograph can be the depiction of a real or imagined landscape whether it be natural or man-made. What is generally important is that the image successfully communicates to the viewer as well as to yourself an emotion, memory or idea about a place.

When I look at my own photographs the ones that I feel are successful are the ones that reconnect me to that time, place or idea that was in my mind. When another person looks at that same image it may communicate that same idea or it may connect them to a personal memory of their own. Images become a conduit to present and past experiences. For those who are truly prepared to really look at an image instead of just view with a passing ‘click’ of the mouse the subtleties in an image can emerge and become more meaningful. When you are learning, take the time to study the work of other photographers that you like because there is a little bit of them in you. (We are all human).


To improve your landscape photography the initial decisions that you make about exposure are very important along with the actual content and composition of those elements within the frame. 

Whether it is an entry level camera or a high end professional model, each will have an aperture and shutter speed and the capability to control the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Together these three tools will give you control of your exposure and how light or dark an image will be.

Lighter images are generally of lighter toned subjects (like snow, frost and mist) but you can control your camera to capture lighter versions of all sorts of subjects within the landscape thereby emphasising the inherent nature of that subject or your feelings about them. And vise-versa for dark subjects and dark exposures (a silhouette perhaps of your subject or night scene).

In a nutshell: 

  • If you want to make a darker image, then change your shutter speed to a higher number (faster speed) or change your aperture to a larger “f”  number (smaller aperture opening). Both techniques will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.
  • Conversely if you want a brighter image, then make your shutter speed slower (lower speed) and open up your aperture to a larger opening (smaller ‘f’ number) and more light will pass through to the sensor.
  • Changing the ISO setting higher number will amplify the signal making the image brighter. (The base level for ISO is 100 and it goes up from there when needed.)
  • Finally, if your camera is more suited to automatic or semi automatic use, then you can use the Exposure Compensation setting to do the same thing. -EV will make your images darker and +EV will make them lighter.

Images of dark and light exposures

Ultimately the best way to learn
to control aperture and shutter speed is to learn to use your camera in manual mode and control each mechanism individually to create an exposure to suit your idea.

The aperture will also have an impact on the depth-of-field in your image (the bigger the ‘f’ number, the wider depth of focus) and the shutter speed will control the movement of subject or your camera making the resulting image look blurred or sharp.

The best way to start out is regular practice. Get out of bed early before the sun rises and be out late in the day when the sunlight is lower in the sky and more conducive to making emotive images.  This lower angle of light will emphasise contours and be warmer and softer than the light in the middle of the day when the light is hard and above your head. The more you practice the more intuitive your photography will become. Ultimately you won’t have to think about what technique to use you will just get in the zone and play. 

Joining a photography club or group can help to motivate the early morning starts. They also provide company and a sense of safety if you don’t like being out on your own. The best way to receive the right knowledge and feedback on your work is through a dedicated Photography Workshop company with instructors who you admire and wish to learn from. I say this also because I am one of them and I love teaching. 

The best lens for landscape photography is the one that suits your subject or the idea of the image.

Use a wide-angle lens when there is an interesting foreground, mid ground and background. With this lens, what is closer to you will look bigger and what is far away will look smaller. It is also easier to have more objects within the frame in focus. Especially when you combine this lens with a bigger ‘f’ number (smaller aperture opening). Usually f8-f11 is chosen as this is also the sweet spot in the lens. The trick is to make sure that your foreground is interesting and that it then helps to lead the eye into and around the rest of the composition.

At the other end of the scale, telephoto lenses allow you to select and emphasise parts of the scene. First recognise what your subject is and if it is a long way away from your camera then you will need a telephoto lens. The characteristic of longer focal length lenses is to compress the elements in a scene together. The subject matter in the mid ground and background come closer together making the foreground and distant background out of focus.

A common mistake for beginner is to have too many subjects in the same frame with the result that the viewer doesn’t know what the photograph is about.

Images showing a wide angle shot and a telephoto shot

The most common lens
that is used will most likely be an all-rounder mid-range zoom lens that allows for semi-wide angle shots as well telephoto. From 18-24 mm to 200-300 mm. There is nothing wrong with these lenses but they can make a photographer lazy. Zooming in closer with a lens will create a very different result from using your legs to walk closer to the subject. Selecting the appropriate the focal length lens for the subject takes time to learn and the best way to do this is practice and then spend time evaluating the results.

The best camera to use for landscape photography is the one that you are prepared to have with you wherever you go. What comes into play here though is your intent, your personality and your purse.

If you plan to print your work to a large scale then using a camera with a larger sensor that records more detailed information will be important because your image won’t ‘break up’ when printed. The advantages of larger sensors and more information are that you can also crop into the frame and change your compositions and still have enough pixels for printing.

Your personality and level of experience is a factor too. Some people like to be discreet and keep their gear simple and easy to carry while others love experimenting with new gear in the hope that the gear will make their next best image.

The fact is, is that it is the 20cm behind the camera that is most important (the idea and brain). But as photographers become more experienced they like to upgrade their gear along the way and take advantage of new technology and capabilities.

My advice would be research the capabilities of a camera and make sure that it has the forward capabilities for you to grow into. Research the images of other photographers whose style you like and see what they use and why.

For instance, I love to make in-camera multiple exposures and my choice of camera is the current Canon EOS R5. Every new camera that I purchase is the best camera that I have ever owned. This ticks all the boxes for me as it is a full frame mirrorless camera with a 45-megapixel sensor. I love being able to compose my multiple exposures while looking through the lens (or seeing the viewfinder) and I love the high resolution for the big prints that I make. It is expensive but this is what I do for a living. Make photographs and teach.

Image: My multiple exposures


Many landscape scenarios require the use of a tripod. Especially when the light is dim and you’re wanting to record a wide depth of focus (as this recipe will require a slow shutter speed to handle the smaller aperture).

Once again, the best tripod to have is the one that you can carry to your destination and look forward to using. If you don’t walk far from the car then it can be a heavier aluminum tripod but if you plan to walk far then spending the extra dollars on a carbon fibre model may be a priority. Some photographers have multiple tripods to suit their needs.

Knowing how you are going to use your tripod will help you decide what features you need in your tripod and how much money you should spend. If you love getting down low to photograph the forest floor then having a model with legs that will articulate to a low level is important. Or if you are planning to be in extremely low temperatures then carbon fibre models don’t get so cold and are lighter to carry.

Typically, your tripod should be able to support the weight of your camera body and lens without falling over. Heavier camera = heavier tripod.

The better brands of tripods will allow the purchase of separate tripod heads and legs. The most common tripod head will be a ball head that allows you to freely move the head in any direction and you lock it into position with one knob. This is what I use and I find it just fine although there are times when I want just a little bit more control of the exact positioning. To get this I would use a Pan Head where each direction is controlled by a separate knob. It is slower but more exact. Ideally, your tripod should be easy enough able to operate in the dark that part of the practice regime too.

All good tripod heads should come with a quick release plate. If you have a telephoto lens with a tripod attachment foot, then you will want to have an extra quick release plate to leave permanently on the lens, otherwise you will be chopping and changing the plate from camera to lens and interrupting your workflow.

We all have different likes and dislikes, but one thing that is analogous to humanity is that we don’t live in isolation very well and a great way to connect with others is by sharing our experiences through images.

Landscape photographs will communicate to your viewers on different levels, depending on their knowledge of photography – and who they are as an individual.

Stay safe and have fun.


Jackie Ranken has had over 35 year’s experience within the visual arts and has been an international awards judge since 2002. She combines her art practice with teaching and is a presenter in workshops and seminars internationals. Living in New Zealand with her husband/photographer Mike Langford that make a formidable team.  

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