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10 Tips for … big landscape shots

Tokina AF 12-24mm f/4 AT-X 124 Pro DX II Lens - Nikon MountGot a call earlier today from a friend with a Nikon D3000 who is off to the States for a holiday, heading into big vista country, and I thought that a few of the tips I passed on might make a useful post.

For a trip like this, there are going to be a lot of “vista” shot opportunities – huge panoramic scenes.  So often we try to capture the majesty of these scenes only to be disappointed when the shots just don’t convey the vastness, so what to do to improve such shots?

1 – Zoom right out – Most lenses you will have are zooms, so remember to adjust your zoom to its widest angle – that’s 18mm on most of the Nikon kit lenses.  I’m amazed how often I see people I am out on photo walks or 1 to 1’s with just taking the shot using whatever zoom setting their lens happens to be on.  Get into the habit of moving your zoom in and out every shot, to see how different shots will look either out wide or zoomed in closer.

Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC HSM Optical Stabilised Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras2 – Wide angle lens – Use the widest angle lens you have to make sure that as much of the scene as possible is in shot.  If you have a wider angle lens, use it!  I have a Tokina 12-24mm lens (see top photo) which is fabulous for landscape work, and there are affordable 10-20mm lenses available such as the Sigma one here which are even wider.  The difference between a shot at 18mm and one at 10 or 12mm is really substantial, so investing in a wide angle lens is a good option if big landscapes is a subject you want to master.

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Lens3 – What if I only want to take 1 lens? – This question is one of the most common I am asked when I’m doing Nikon training, and it makes sense, especially on holiday, if you don’t want to be lugging loads of stuff around with you.  Up until recently, my go-to lens if I only wanted to take one was the fabulous Nikon 18-200mm VR, but now they’ve gone and brought out an 18-300mm shown here which is definitely on my wish list!  If your budget doesn’t stretch to buying Nikon’s own lenses, there are good (and a lot cheaper) offerings such as the Tamron 18-270mm and the Sigma 18-250mm , which are well worth a look.

4 – Take a tripod – I know that you might not want to lug a big heavy tripod around, but really, how often do you get to the BIG scenery?  I’m not saying that you should necessarily take it out with you every day, but for the times when you do have the chance to set it up, especially if you want a low light or sunrise/sunset shot, a tripod will give you the extra sharpness which a big landscape really does need, especially if you want to blow it up when you get home.  If you go out to buy one for the trip, carbon fibre ones are much lighter.  For travel, I take along a little Manfrotto 785B like this one, which is light enough to slip into my belt for walking around, but then extends to almost 6 foot which means I don’t get a bad back bending down to compose my shot.

5 – Expose for the brightest area – In any high contrast scene, it can be very difficult to get detail in the darker area detail whilst keeping the brighter areas from “blowing out” – going to complete white where you lose all detail.  In these cases, expose for the brighter areas, which will perhaps make the darker areas look too dark on your camera screen.  However, there is far more latitude in adjusting darker areas on the computer later on, whereas once you’ve blown out a bright area, there’s no getting the detail back.

6 – Shoot to crop – A technique many good photographers use a technique called pre-visualization.  As you are setting up for your shot, you should have in your mind’s eye the final output you want.  In the shot below, I knew that I was going to crop this as a panorama, and lose a lot of the sky which wasn’t very interesting, so I placed the tree at the front on the left hand thirds line as a scale object, accentuating the massive landscape behind.

7 – Turn VR on – Most cameras these days incorporate some sort of vibration reduction either in the body, or in Nikon’s case, in most of their lenses.  By turning this on, shake from your hands or body moving during your shot is greatly reduced, giving sharper shots.  I would always recommend buying zoom lenses with VR these days – the non-VR lenses are cheaper but it makes a huge difference to the number of sharp shots you can capture.

8 – Clean your lens/filter – It might sound very basic, but ALWAYS check that your lens (and I hope you have a filter in front protecting it!) and your filter are clean.  If not, use a proper lens-cloth or a lens pen to clean the front surface, being very careful to blow/brush away any grit before gently rubbing the filter in concentric circles to remove any grease or fingermarks.

9 – Use full depth of field – Big vista scenes need a big depth of field to ensure full focus from the foreground to the background.  If you are using the scene modes, pick the mountains icon, or even good old full auto which will give you a medium depth of field which should be fine.  In Aperture Priority mode, you should be using an f stop of 16 or 22.  Be aware though, that there is an inverse relationship between depth of field and shutter speed, so as your f-stop number gets bigger, so your shutter speed gets slower, which may result in blurred shots if the light is not brilliant.  The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be 1 over the lens zoom length to ensure sharp shots.  So, if you are at 200mm on your zoom, you need a shutter speed of 1/200th sec, if you are at 18mm for a wide angle shot, you need a shutter speed of 1/20th sec.  If you learn to be aware of this, you’ll get more sharp shots.

10 – Look and move around – My last tip is one which will bag you more good shots, but which we all forget to do far too often!  It’s easy to become fixated on the scene in front of you, but once you’ve bagged that shot, do a full 360° turn to see what else might be worth a shot.  Move a few steps left and right, forward and back – it’s amazing how a slight change in position can dramatically alter perspective and bring new opportunities for shots into view.  The shot below was taken in the Royal Natal Park in Southern Drakensburg, S. Africa, just after we had driven in.  We parked up for a coffee and there was a 10 foot high grass bank on our right, so I climbed up, to be rewarded with this amazing view, which we then spent over an hour exploring and photographing.  But had we just stayed put, we’d never have even known it was there!

Do you have any more tips for big landscape shots? If so, please share them as a comment :)

Joe Houghton Photography runs small group photo shoots, individual 1 to 1 tuition, and photography assignments. You can see some of Joe’s photography on Fine Art AmericaArtistRising or on his Flickr site.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment, “Like” it on one of your social media sites or even better subscribe to the blog to get all the posts as they go up. Happy shooting :)

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About Joe Houghton

As a self confessed gadget and app lover, here are my personal musings and thoughts on useful, interesting or maybe just odd technology which caught my eye...

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