Good or Bad?
Good light is critical in getting a quality landscape photograph. Almost anything can be made to look good in the right light with the right framing, and terrible in bad light. After all that’s what the camera is recording, it’s even the meaning of the word photograph (in Greek it means drawing with light).
What is good light? How do you find it and make best use of it?
Taking a photo in bad light isn’t going to result in a great landscape shot. As a general rule of thumb, if it looks bad to your eye the camera will make it look worse. Your eyes are very good at adjusting to contrast across a scene and building up a picture of the whole. With a camera you have to record it all and present it in one viewable image.
When the sun is near its zenith we get harsh shadows, lots of contrast, cold blue light, and generally flat looking colourless images.
Without cloud or mist to diffuse it the sun acts as a single point of light.
Though you can take shots midday or in the early afternoon if conditions are right, a polariser helps, as does a graduated filter. As usual, every ‘rule’ in photography is a guideline you can break when it will work. I find you can get away with shooting at these times if there is some decent cloud cover, especially in winter months.
‘Good’ light takes planning, research, prediction, effort, early starts, late nights, and a touch of luck. Even then it won’t work out all the time. For me, roughly 1 in 3 shoots will be usable.
Typically the best light is in the golden hours. Half an hour either side of sunrise and sunset. Often the next hour after sunrise or before sunset is worthwhile also. This is because the light is travelling more horizontally, giving more definition to subjects. It’s also travelling further through the atmosphere, this scatters more of the blue light leaving warmer red light for us to record.
First try and know the area your going to shoot as well as you can. Will it be lit in a sunrise or sunset? Use The Photographers Ephemeris or other tools to see where and when the sun and moon will rise/set. Use google maps or go and scout the location the day before. Have a number of possible locations for shooting, having only one spot on a given day can leave you out of options fast if the light doesn’t work out the way you wanted it too – try and plan an alternative shoot location close by.
Landscape locations should involve as large a range of features you can find to give you framing options in varying light – good landscapes typically have foreground interest, mid-ground detail, skies, mountains in the distance etc.
One of the best options is camp close to or on site.
Check weather reports beforehand, check them regularly and just before you go out (Metservice and metvu or whatever your local service is). If the framing requires a lot of sky then you will want some clouds to give interest to that area. Clouds also help bounce sunlight and diffuse it. Good weather is often not good for photography!
Get to the site early, keep an eye on the sky, weather conditions and how the light is developing. If it doesn’t look promising where you are and the light looks better elsewhere, move! You should already have options planned for other locations!
There are other light conditions than your average spectacular sunrise or harsh mid day glare, cloudy, overcast, stormy conditions can make for good photographs. Here are some recommendations for shooting in them:
So lets assume you have some good light and something to shoot. There are still a number of hurdles to get over before you start to ‘make an image’.
Gear and Set-up
There’s very few photographers who mistakenly use ISO 3200, left the batteries at home or some other simple mistake. A simple check through your gear beforehand prevents these kind if issues. Also make sure you have appropriate gear for the task, waterproof clothing, insect repellent etc.
Make sure your camera batteries are all fully charged. Sensor is clean, any filters and lenses are clean also.
I recommend having a sturdy tripod that is flexible enough to allow you whatever shooting position you need. it should also being the cameras viewfinder/screen to eye level without use of a centre column. I currently use a Manfrotto 190xprob, but looking at a lighter replacement (Gitzo or Feisol). On this I use a Markins Q3T ball head with an arca swiss compatible quick release clamp. This also has a panning plate built in.
The combination needs to be as rock steady as possible. Its no use if it isn’t!
I mount the camera to the plate using a Really Right Stuff L plate. This allows me to quickly mount the camera in either landscape or portrait modes and easy rotation in portrait for multiple frame stitches. It also makes shooting with the 24 tilt shift much easier.
A cable release is a worthwhile addition to cameras that can use them , these are available for not much money and will help with vibration and timing. If you don’t have one then the 2 or 10 second timer mode is a good alternative.
Once the camera is solidly on its tripod and level check the set-up.
Pick an appropriate file format. I recommend RAW for many reasons, it gives you much more information, more latitude in processing, more dynamic range, control over white balance and will benefit from improvements in raw processing in the years to come. JPG is useful at times but best to be avoided unless you need straight out of camera results or low on storage space.
Use the cameras best ISO setting. If your working on a tripod and there isn’t any unwanted movement in foliage etc then select your cameras base lowest ISO , which often has the best dynamic range and least noise (though not always). If your shooting hand held or there is movement then you will need to raise this to give you shutter speeds that freeze the motion.
Shutter speed and Aperture are best controlled by you rather than the camera, though if conditions are rapidly changing then Aperture priority is a good option. Shutter priority should only be used when the exposure time is critical for the effect you want ( for example a panning shot).
Aperture should be set to a value that provides enough depth of field for your shot. This for landscapes is usually between f8 and f16. Too large an aperture and things will be out of the focal plane, too small and you will start to see softness due to diffraction. Some people use the hyperfocal distance, which works but often results foreground items being soft even though they are in the plane of focus they are at the near edge. I prefer to set focus on the foreground item I want sharp then increase the aperture until everything else is sharp – even with diffraction, its better things are in focus than not!
Shutter speed can be ignored if you are on a tripod and nothing is moving. If you are trying to capture some movement or freeze motion then you will have to balance this against aperture and ISO.
On other key aspect is White Balance. Your camera (if set to auto WB) is going to try and mute the colours of that lovely sunset so that white things appear white. If you’re shooting raw then this is less important but still part of the process. Set your camera to daylight WB (around 5500k) and this should bring out the colours that your eye sees a little better. If you shoot raw you can adjust the WB later but this still affects the preview and the histogram.
The last step covered here is gathering the information we need to create the image. this is often not the ‘correct’ exposure as you see it, but what we require to get the best image during post processing (PP). Remember we are creating a single image for a whole view when our eyes adjust as they scan around and build up an image as it sees.
Typically the best way to find the right exposure is to use live view exposure simulation and enable the histogram (if possible).
I also use magic lantern ( a 3rd party firmware addition for canon) with the zebera option and spot meter enabled.The Zebras immediately show me where things are over exposed and which channels. The spot meter I can move around to see what level each area is. If you want to get technical this can be used with the zone system for accurate exposure calculations.
Make sure you are using a ‘flat’ picture style as any colour/contrast and even WB can affect the histogram/exposure values.
Sometimes the scene will be of limited dynamic range, within your camera sensors ability to record, which is typically around 12 stops of light. If so, then I suggest exposing to the right (ettr). Increase the exposure until just before you are clipping the highlights. Make a decision on what you find acceptable here. This records the maximum amount of detail and later on in post processing you can reduce the exposure to the correct level. This will give cleaner shadow areas, because the camera records much more information on brighter exposed areas than dark areas.
In the example below the scene is showing to be roughly half the range of the histogram and the metering has averaged it out to typical 18% grey. This means the light bits are far from being over exposed and the dark bits are either not recorded at all or with very little information. Mid tones are also fairly dark.
Tech note: A camera records each pixel as a set of Red, Blue and Green values stored as 12 or 14 bit binary. Pixels of dark areas will only have a few bits of information (10100000000) whilst bright areas will have a lot of information (10101101101). The object of ettr is to record as much information as possible (use as many bits as possible) so when we correct the exposure in PP in a 16bit environment we have more data to play with.
Sometimes the scene fits nicely into your cameras single exposure dynamic range,or you choose to ‘blow out’ some highlights or lowlights (i.e. record no information for those areas). If so one shot will record the scene as you want.
More often there’s more dynamic range than we can record in one frame and have decided that it needs controlling somehow. Luckily there are a number of techniques you can use.
Filters are always my first option (though not for everyone), I use Lee filters and hitech , there are other options but these are a good mix of quality and price. Filters are especially useful when you have foliage in wind or moving water, and if you have reasonably clear delineation between dark and light areas.
There are a number of different types of filters worth having:
- Circular Polariser. This cuts down reflections and glare. Useful for enhancing foliage and sky colour, underwater features and reducing blue scatter due to haze. It also removes 1-2 stops of light and can produce uneven skies on wide angle lenses. Typically round and with an ability to rotate to adjust the effect.
- Neutral Density filters. Square or round these come in a number of strengths and are primarily used for extending exposure time for things like waterfall shots. 1,2 & 3 stops are typical, 10 stops (lee big stopper etc) help get long exposures during bright conditions. Also used to reduce shutter speeds for flash synch issues in bright light. Round or square.
- Graduated Neutral Density filters. These are typically rectangular and come in 85mm , 100mm sizes (based on width). Again normally in 1-4 stop strengths. The transition between the clear and dark areas can either be soft(gradual) or hard (abrupt). I most frequently use 2 or 3 stops and hard filters.
- Reverse Graduated filters are similar to the above but have a hard dark area half way along the filter then fade out to clear at the top. Used almost exclusively for sunset/sunrise shots with visible horizons.
There are other filters which can be used but many have become unnecessary in the digital age.
Graduated neutral density filter
When filters dont work…
A typical sunrise scene can need a good 5 stops of exposure difference between correct exposure for the sky and foreground objects, with moving water or other brighter areas in the lower section preventing the use of filters to even out the exposure completely.
There are two other options both requiring multiple exposures. HDR and exposure blending. Both require you to take multiple shots. So use your camera’s bracketing functions. On Canons you can take 3 (sometimes more) shots in succession using the 2 second timer, -2,0,+2 or whatever suits the scene. I use Magic lanterns HDR bracketing function for up to 9 shots and usually 1/2 a stop apart.
I combine using filters and bracketing if needed, and when possible.
For post processing, I use Photoshop and masks to do exposure blending. I select all the exposures I think I need, convert and load them into Photoshop, then copy them all to one document and add masks where appropriate. Masks are a simple way of painting where that layer should show, and by how much. White means it shows (unless overwritten by a higher placed layer) black hides it. You can use shades of grey. I use gradient fills and manual painting at times. In the example below you can see how I build up the image to get the required exposure across the frame.
High Dynamic Range
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range , its not a new technique, but has become popular with digital imaging through people like Trey Rartcliff and an old university mate Pete Carr. HDR is somewhat misnamed, it should be compressed dynamic range. What it does is take a set of exposures containing a total of say 20 stops of DR and reduces this to something we can see on a print or screen in 10 or 12. So it’s a technique of reducing the actual dynamic range to a more limited one. Despite what people have done with it, you can use it to produce natural looking shots. It also can be used to enhance, flatten and bring colour out in a scene.
I personally use photomatix (demo is available for download), I find this generally good and easy to use with great presets to get you started and a nice simple post conversion processing pallet for adding back contrast and colour that is otherwise sometimes lost. I almost always make adjustments away from one of the presets. I usually start with the photographic or natural preset.
One issue with HDR is noise, especially if you don’t cover the lower end of the exposure fully. Apparently Nik effex HDR pro 2 is better in this regard, I will have to give it a go.
HDR and photomatix deserve their own guide so I won’t go into further detail here on what I do, but load up your images and have a play!
Here is a comparison between a hand blended shot (left) and a photomatix HDR (right).