This introduction to the fundamentals of landscape photography teaches you the must-know essentials to start capturing images that makes you proud to say: I TOOK THAT!
Most photographers started their journey without caring about camera settings and how to do things correctly. They just enjoyed taking images for fun. Terms such as ISO and f-stop flew right by. Perhaps this is where you find yourself today.
What these professional photographers have in common is that at some point, they realized learning the fundamentals was essential in order to improve their craft.
The hard truth is that you’ll never be able to fully exploit your camera and get better results without acquiring the basic knowledge of how it works.
This article introduces you to the fundamentals of landscape photography; you’ll learn what they are, how you use them, and how even small adjustments make big differences.
What are the landscape photography fundamentals?
The fundamentals of landscape photography can be broken into two categories: camera settings and creative approaches. Both categories can help your photography alone but understanding and applying them simultaneously gives the best results.
ISO, shutter speed and aperture are the essentials camera settings but we’re also going to have a quick look at the file format, color space, and white balance. These are all important settings to understand, both when setting up your new camera or making adjustments for a specific shot.
The creative approaches are a little more individual but here we’ll look closer at compositions for landscape photography, creative uses of camera settings, the importance of light, and a few other key elements.
I urge you to take your time when reading through each of the topics below. If you need, bookmark this page or those dedicated to further learning until you fully understand how the settings work both individually and together.
This article is written to give you a better understanding of the fundamentals of landscape photography. Having this basic knowledge leads to higher quality images and a more creative vision.
The Exposure Triangle
The Exposure Triangle isn’t a setting itself but it represents the three most important: the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. It’s these three settings that impact the exposure, or brightness, of an image.
You’ll soon learn that the three settings work closely together. Adjusting one of them has a direct impact on the other two. Understanding how each setting work is important but understanding how they work together is essential.
Let’s take a closer look at the three fundamental settings that make up The Exposure Triangle:
The first fundamental setting in photography is the ISO. This is a setting that can do big damage to the image file when used wrong.
ISO expresses the camera’s sensitivity to light; The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive it is to light. Vice versa, a lower value makes the camera less sensitive to light. However, the more sensitive the sensor is to light, the more grain and noise are introduced in the image.
This means is that the higher ISO you use, the less light you need to get a well-exposed image. This allows you to use a quicker shutter speed. A low ISO requires more light to reach the sensor to get a good exposure, meaning the shutter speed needs to be longer.
Think of the ISO as a waterwheel: when it’s low, the wheel rotates slowly without spilling any water. With this method, the water is transferred without any loss, but it takes more time. A higher ISO means the waterwheel spins faster but spills a lot of water in the process. It works a lot faster, but with big losses of water, or a loss in quality if you prefer.
Read our Introduction to ISO in Digital Photography for more information
The second fundamental setting in photography is the aperture. This setting won’t damage the image file but using it incorrectly may lead to a less sharp, or partly out-of-focus, image.
The easiest way to understand aperture is to think of it as a hole that lets light through your lens. The bigger the hole (such as f/2.8 or f/4), the quicker light passes through. A narrow hole (such as f/22) requires more time.
It’s impossible to properly explain what aperture is without also mentioning Depth of Field. I know this is where things become a little complicated in the beginning. It’s not as difficult as it sounds at first but I recommend that you spend some time experimenting with different apertures and perspectives to see how it works.
Here’s an easy exercise you can do at home:
- Mount the camera on a tripod or set it in a spot it won’t move between the shots
- Place a bottle or object 30 or so centimeters in front of the lens
- Focus on the bottle and set the camera to Aperture Priority Mode
- Use the widest aperture possible (lowest number) and take an image
- Keep the focus on the bottle and take another shot, this time with the second-lowest aperture
- Repeat this until you’ve made your way to the narrowest aperture (highest number)
- Review the images
In the first few images, the bottle should be sharp while the background is blurry/out-of-focus. You’ll then see that the closer to the end you come, the more front-to-back sharpness there is. That’s how aperture impacts the Depth of Field
Read our Introduction to Aperture in Digital Photography for more information
#3 Shutter speed
The third fundamental setting in photography, and the final component of The Exposure Triangle, is the shutter speed. I view this as the most important camera setting as it has a massive impact the image.
In very simple terms, the shutter speed is referred to as the duration that the camera’s shutter is open and allowing light to reach the sensor. This period is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. A large denominator such as 1/1000 is a quicker shutter speed than a lower denominator such as 1/10.
A quick shutter speed such as 1/1000th of a second allows less light to reach the sensor. This works best for situations where you’re photographing in broad daylight or quickly moving elements. In low-light situations, a quick shutter speed results in under-exposed images, unless you’re using a high ISO.
The camera registers all movement when using a slower shutter speed. This lets more light reach the sensor but seeing that the camera picks up all movements, it requires you to follow a few extra steps.
Read our Introduction to Shutter Speed in Digital Photography and Shutter Speed Exercise for more information
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How the camera settings depend on eachother
The three camera settings above are what make up The Exposure Triangle. They’re all important for the technical and visual outcome of the image. But understanding their individual purposes isn’t enough. You need to understand how they interact with each other.
I briefly mentioned that a quick shutter speed depends on a high ISO. This is especially the case in low-light situations. A quick shutter speed is required to freeze motion. For example when photographing birds. The quicker something moves, the quicker the shutter speed needs to be. But opening the shutter for 1/5000th of a second isn’t always enough to get a well-exposed image. The solution is then to use a wider aperture or higher ISO.
We now know that a wider aperture also impacts the Depth of Field. In some cases you want a shallow depth of field (meaning blurred out background) but in other cases you don’t. In those cases you need to instead increase the ISO. This introduces unwanted grain and noise to the image but that’s a consequence we’ll have to live with.
This example also works the other way around. Let’s say that you’re photographing a waterfall and want to give the water a silky look by using a slow shutter speed. This is known as Long Exposure Photography. A high ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to light, which is the opposite of what we want. Decreasing the ISO to the lowest value means that it takes more time for the sensor to expose an image, which requires a slow shutter speed. A narrower aperture, such as f/22, means even less light reaches the sensor and requires you to extend the shutter speed even more.
However, a narrow aperture also reduces the overall sharpness of the photo. The alternative is to use a Neutral Density Filter. These are darkened filters that are placed in front of the lens to reduce the light even more. That’s how you achieve shutter speeds of several seconds or even minutes.
The best file format for photography
It’s essential that you choose the correct file format if you’re serious about making the most out of your photography. Photographing in the wrong format limits the possibilities and is more likely to cause damage to the image file, especially when you introduce post-processing to your workflow.
There are two main file formats in photography: RAW and JPG. Both have their place but it’s important to start with the correct one.
#1 Photograph and process in RAW files
RAW files are the best file format for photography. The exact name of this file depends on what camera you’re using. Nikon uses NEF, Fuji uses RAF and Canon uses CR3. These are all RAW files and work in the same way.
What makes RAW files superior is that they’re uncompressed files. This means they are unedited and contain the highest amount of information. Having this additional information means that you’re able to do a lot more in post-processing without damaging the image file.
RAW files are a lot bigger in size than other formats and need to be converted into a compressed format before posted online.
I recommend using this file format even if you haven’t started processing your images. At the very least you should be shooting in JPG + RAW. You might regret not having the best files when you begin editing images at a later stage.
#2 Use JPG files for online publishing
The second file format in photography is JPG, or JPEG. This is a compressed file format which contains less details than the bigger RAW format. Being compressed means that the file size is smaller but also that the camera makes certain decisions and immediately applies slight processing.
Photographing in JPG limits your options once the image is imported to a computer. You wont be able to make big adjustments to the contrast or colors, or anything else for that matter, before the image quality begins to suffer.
JPG files are, however, the standard for publishing images online. This means that you need to convert the RAW file to JPG before posting it to your website or Social Media. Keep in mind that this is the last step in your workflow – all processing should be done to the RAW file.
Choose the correct color space
Color spaces can be confusing and at times difficult to understand but they are extremely important to understand. While you don’t need to understand the technical aspects, you need to know which ones to use for various purposes.
Put simply, a color space is the range of colors that can be produced in an image. There is a handful to choose between, all of which have a variety in the gamut of colors.
Using a smaller range of colors means that you’re missing essential information in the image and you aren’t able to fully take advantage of your camera..
Read our Introduction to Color Spaces in Photography for more information.
Is White Balance a fundamental of landscape photography?
The final fundamental camera setting we’re going to look at is the White Balance. This is a camera setting that impacts the colors and color cast in a photo. But the big question is: is it a fundamental of landscape photography?
You won’t like this answer: it depends.
The importance of White Balance depends on the file format you’re photographing in. It is not essential when photographing in RAW but it is essential when photographing in JPG.
I told you that RAW files gives you more flexibility. White Balance is one of the settings you’re able to change in post-processing. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you set it to in-camera.
When photographing in JPG it is more important to get it right in the camera. This is one of the settings that are compressed in the file, meaning you can’t make big adjustments to it in a photo editor.
Read our Introduction to White Balance in Photography for more information.
The fundamental creative approaches
The fundamentals of landscape photography doesn’t end with the camera settings. It’s important to get the technical aspects correct but it’s as important, if not even more important, to make the right creative approaches. It’s these approaches that decide whether or not you’re able to grab the attention of a viewer. Camera settings are mostly (but not only) about the file quality.
The composition, light and creative use of camera settings are the key aspects when talking about the fundamental creative approaches. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how you can use them to become a better photographer.
#1 The composition
It’s hard to argue against the fact that a good composition is a key element of capturing a compelling photograph. Besides the camera settings, it’s one of the most important fundamentals of landscape photography. It doesn’t matter how great the conditions are or how much you’ve edited the image; it still needs a strong composition.
Teaching composition is a bit tricky. There’s not ‘one correct’ approach that works for every image. It’s also a very personal choice. After all, it’s you as the artist who makes a conscious decision about the composition. Still, it’s important to understand how and when to apply certain techniques.
There are many compositional rules and guidelines in landscape photography, where the Rule of Thirds is the most known. The principle of that rule is to break the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, leaving you with 9 frames. These frames serve as guidelines as to where you should place subjects of interest in your image, either at the intersections or along the lines.
This is a good compositional guideline to begin with. It’s an easy way to instantly make images more interesting. But don’t make the mistake of applying it to each and every photo. Use it as a practice and learn about the other essential compositional guidelines in photography.
Remember that each image is different. The main objective when making a composition should always be to emphasize the main subject of the photograph.
#2 The importance of light
Without light, there wouldn’t be an image. After all, the word photography means to record light. No light, means no photo.
But all light isn’t the same. You’ll often hear people talk about ‘good or bad light’ for photography. In his eBook ‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Light‘, photographer TJ Thorne argues his case that good images can be captured at any time of the day. I’m a firm believer in this too and agree that it’s possible to get world-class images even in hard midday light.
The most important aspect of light in photography is to know how to take advantage of it. How should you position yourself? What light is best for highlighting the subject in your photo?
That being said, there are certain times of day that’s preferred by landscape photographers. The hours around sunrise and sunset is known as the Golden Hour and during this time, the sun’s low position on the sky casts a soft and warm color to the landscape.
#3 Creative uses of camera settings
The last fundamental of landscape photography we’re going to look at is the creative use of camera settings. This is where you can take advantage of understanding the shutter speed and aperture, and make creative decisions to make the image stand out.
There’s not a correct way of doing this; experimenting is the biggest part. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
#1 Use a shallow Depth of Field
An aperture between f/7.1 and f/13 is what’s commonly referred to as ‘the best aperture for landscape photography‘. It might be the best in terms of front-to-back sharpness but that doesn’t mean it’s always the correct choice.
Using an open aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/4, can result in stunning images. Especially when focusing on one of nature’s smaller scenes, wildlife or portraits. Take the image below as an example:
Had I used a narrow aperture, such as f/13, the bear wouldn’t have stood out as much. Instead, it would’ve blended with the background and raven. The moment could’ve still been unique but the image wouldn’t have the same impact.
I encourage you to spend some time experimenting with different shutter speeds. It’s true that f/7.1 to f/13 is ideal for standard landscape photography but a wider aperture can be more exciting when moving closer to a subject.
#2 Use a slow shutter speed
I told you at the beginning of this article that the shutter speed is one of the fundamentals of landscape photography. It’s the one that has the biggest impact on an image. A quick shutter speed and a slow shutter speed give end in two completely different images.
This setting can be used as a creative component. Either by completely freezing motion (quick shutter speed) or blurring them (slow shutter speed). A good exercise is to try different shutter speeds to see how it impacts your images.
Intentional Camera Movement, or ICM, is another creative, and fun, technique. The concept is to use a semi-slow shutter speed and tilt the camera up or down, or in any other motion while taking the image. This can lead to unique looking images.
Landscape photography ideas
For many of us, landscape photography is a good way to disconnect from daily stresses. It’s an excuse to get outside and to spend time in beautiful surroundings. I’d go as far as saying it’s a good form of meditation.
At the same time, becoming a better photographer demands some extra effort from your side. Just showing up and pressing the shutter button isn’t enough to make you a talented photographer. For that, you need to understand the fundamentals of landscape photography.
These fundamentals are broken into two groups: the fundamental camera settings and the fundamental creative approaches. The first are important in order to get a high-quality image file while the second is important in order to make compelling images.
Take the time to learn the fundamentals of landscape photography and you’ll quickly see a big improvement in your craft. It won’t be long until you capture stunning images that you can’t wait to share with the world!
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