Landscape Photography: A Walk Through My Setup

I'm often asked about camera gear, locations, and even how I set up and capture my shots. So I thought I'd share some brief thoughts on my landscape photography for those of you interested in seeing how another photographer goes about capturing a scene.


Now, I'd first like to caveat this by being clear that my method is not for everyone, but it does work for me. As I've gained experience over the years, I've slowly learned to simplify my technique to involve less steps and less gear. Although the photo is the end goal, I still want to enjoy the scene and the light while it's presented in front of me. Keeping my process simple and easy allows for more time to watch, explore, and enjoy the peacefulness of my early morning or late afternoon location rather than getting bogged down with too many steps, fiddling with equipment, or overthinking my shots.


So, as an example, let's walk through my experience capturing the shot below that I recently took at the Virginia Beach pier just before sunrise the day after Thanksgiving. It was a little cold and the wind was blowing, but it was nothing a few layers couldn't solve.


For comparison purposes, I'm also showing a short video of the scene below as I've recently begun doing this with each of my shots to help show the active scene that was captured into my final static photograph.



Step 1 (Scout the weather): As a landscape photographer, I'm either up ridiculously early or out late in order to be on location for sunrise or sunset. This increases my chances of getting a more dynamic and colorful sky (if I'm lucky), and frankly a location all to myself. But I won't roll out of bed before checking the weather first. To do this, I have several weather apps on my phone which I check. I use several to ensure they all agree on the conditions, but if I had to rely on just one I would use "Clear Outside" (see screenshot at bottom of post). This app allows you to pick a specific location and view a comprehensive chart of high, medium, and low cloud forecasts and predicts visibility, fog, and several other elements. I've been using it for some time now and have found it to be remarkably accurate. So what kind of a forecast gets me out of bed? Well, anything more than clear skies and anything less than solid cloud cover. The goal is to have what I call a "broken" sky - meaning a mix of clouds and sky ("broken" referring to when the sun breaks through the clouds). This kind of a sky will usually produce more visual interest in a photo, as it allows the low sun angle to cast colors down through or up onto the partly cloudy sky just before sunrise and just after sunset.


Step 2 (Scout the location): Now, I'd been to this location a few times before, so I was already familiar with the general scene. But I always spend a decent amount of time (before setting up my tripod) looking for the right angle, composition, and determining where the sun (or light source) is coming from or the direction from which it will be rising. Understanding this is key in composing a successful landscape photograph. I'll often use the Photopills app (see screenshot at bottom of post) to help me determine where the sun angle will be so I can plan my shot around the right position and perspective.


Step 3 (Camera Physical Setup): A sturdy tripod is your best friend in landscape photography. I've come to really like the Benro tripods, but any sturdy tripod will do the trick. In this particular location, I expanded the legs to give me the height I wanted, then pushed down hard on the tripod to get it to dig into the sand. Properly anchoring the legs will reduce any subtle settling movements once you have your camera ready to go. Now, it was windy this particular morning, so I used the drop hook under the tripod hub to hang my camera bag from to provide additional downforce on the legs and tripod to add to its stability. I use an "L" basket on my camera body (allows me to quickly switch from landscape to portrait orientation if needed) and I clip that into the tripod mount. In the case of this photo (with such a vast sky and waterscape) I opted for a wide angle lens. That's it. No filters were used for this shot as the water and sky both carried relative brightness so I didn't have to shade down either the sky or foreground to get a balanced exposure with any gradient filters, etc. Just be sure to level your camera so that vertical lines don't fall in or lean out near the edges of the frame.


Step 4 (Camera Settings): Now, I always shoot in manual mode ("M"). This allows me to select the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO values myself for total control of my shot. For those not well versed in these I highly suggest you take the time to learn how each influences a photograph. I've found numerous video tutorials like this one helpful. I also always shoot in the RAW file format as these files retain significantly more data and detail than compressed JPEGs, and this really helps when editing the file on your computer later (a.k.a. post-processing). I typically look to capture detail both in the foreground and in the distance for most of my landscape photography. This beach scene was the same. Without going down a rabbit hole of depth of field discussions, I'll usually default to an aperture value of f11, then adjust from there if needed. This typically will give me a sharp photo from front to back (foreground to background). For the shot of the pier, I knew I wanted to capture some relative movement in the waves as well, so I played with different shutter speeds until I landed on 1/4 seconds. This allowed for some slight motion in the waves, without blurring them out completely (as a longer shutter speed would have done). Finally, I always opt for the lowest ISO setting my camera allows when using a tripod as this reduces any "noise" in the photo file and provides for the cleanest final image. For my camera, that's an ISO value of 100, but other cameras can go as low as 50. For my color balance, I typically set my white balance to "Auto" as it seems to usually capture the right color tones for my shots. If it misses slightly, it can always be adjusted later in editing (you can see how the video white balance was more magenta than the actual scene was). Lastly, I always shoot my landscape photos in the "evaluative" light metering mode. This mode essentially averages the scene - from the highlights to the darkest shadows - giving me a fairly balanced exposure that can be further edited in post later if needed.


Step 5 (Focusing the Shot): Many lenses these days come with image stabilization (IS) built in. This is incredibly helpful when shooting hand-held as it helps reduce the effects of shaky hands. But for landscape photography it can have the opposite affect. The micro motors in the lens that stabilize it can actually cause subtle vibrations which can degrade sharpness when shooting from a tripod. So turn it off and save it for your hand-held photography ventures. Additionally, most lenses these days also have the ability to autofocus, meaning the lens will determine the focus based on where you tell it to do so. Now, I typically turn that off and opt to manually focus the lens to ensure I have the true focal point in my shot in absolute focus before taking the shot. In this particular photo I focused primarily on about two thirds of the way down the pier, seeing that it's the true focal point to the eye within the photo. Most modern cameras now have a rear screen and the ability for the user to zoom in on a specific area of your composition. I zoom as far in as possible to ensure I have set my focus just right.


Once I've covered these core five steps then I'm ready to take my shot. In the case of this sunrise pier photo, I took several shots. I did this as I wanted to have a selection of different waves from which I could pick the one I felt balanced the best with the complex sky above.


Again, this is simply my process of setting up my shots. Virtually every other photographer I've met does one, if not more, elements slightly differently depending on what they're trying to accomplish with their photo. You too will develop your own process that works for you as you perfect you're photography.


 

Photopills App. Clear Outside App


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