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What lens you choose depends on if your landscape is grand (mountains, valleys, big skies, etc) or smaller/needing less to be shown.
Big landscapes work best with wide lenses, from 20-35mm.
Smaller landscapes like waterfalls, MAY work better with a 50mm lens, or even an 85mm. An 85mm lens can make a small-ish waterfall look much more impressive, due to the compression! So don’t feel like just because you’re taking a photo of a natural space that you need to whip out your wide-angle lens. Sometimes this can be too much detail.
One thing to remember as well is that compression can work to your advantage. If you’re especially far away from the mountain range, using a wide angle lens will make them look pretty small and insignificant.
Use a 135mm and suddenly they appear much closer, much bigger, and much more impressive. Playing with compression even in landscape situations can really help make parts of that landscape appear larger (eg., bigger more imposing mountains) but the landscape itself won’t appear as large.
It’s a popular belief that when taking landscape photos, a narrower aperture is better, to get more of the scene in focus. I would argue this is true when taking photos of landscapes alone, however as wth portraiture, too much detail can draw attention away from the dog. If we see every blade of grass and every rock on the mountain, we are creating more opportunities for our dog to be overwhelmed by the scene.
This is especially true if you’re already creating a much wider depth of field by: using a wider angle lens and being further away from the dog. There is already a large amount of the scene in focus. It’s important to understand how to make your depth of field wider or narrower through lens length, aperture, and distance from your subject, to get the results you want.
Personally, I find slightly soft mountains prettier than highly detailed in-focus mountains, but that might be my personal preference in this case.
If you do find yourself shooting with a wide aperture (lower f/ number) don’t be surprised if you end up with ISO 100, and therefore having to use quite a fast shutter speed! Because we are in very open areas with lots of bright sky (with the exception of waterfall/ferny glade-type landscapes), they are typically quite well lit. There is never going to be a problem with making your shutter speed faster!
Depth of field: distance from subject
The first four photos here were taken at basically the same location, but each is closer to the dog. The settings don’t change however. All were taken at f/3.2 with the 35mm lens. Notice the way the background changes throughout the series.
So once again, it’s important to consider our depth of field in landscape photos. Because of course we want to be able to see the landscape, we have to remember that the dog is likely to be a smaller part of the overall photo, and is therefore already competing with some quite large elements that he has to stand out against.
If I were to re-do the photo of Journey in the rocky mountain scene from above, I would for sure want much, much less detail in those rocks. There is SO MUCH going on there that he is totally lost in it all. And maybe that can be an artistic choice too: Look at all these cool patterns/textures etc… or maybe, it can just be too much. Don’t feel like your landscape photos must have an extremely wide depth of field with absolutely everything in focus in order for them to be good.
Exposing for Highlights
A very important factor for your landscape photo is retaining detail in the sky. After all, part of the drama or beauty of your landscape (if you’re doing a “big landscape” rather than a waterfall or similar) is going to be the sky. See more in the “Weather and Light” topic.
But this means we are going to potentially be facing some exposure challenges that we don’t normally face when in the woods.
We need to know how to choose our exposure settings so we keep all that detail in the sky (whether it’s cloud textures or sunset colours) so we don’t end up with huge white blobs in the sky, OR with it entirely washed out and white without colour.
we need to have tools to be able to make the situation work.
Personally, I try and generally capture the scene in one exposure (rather than taking multiple photos/bracketing) – just because I find it a bit annoying to have to match the darker sky photo to the brighter subject photo. But that’s just me, and I know my camera can handle it.
By keeping an eye on the histogram you can usually make an educated guess as to whether you’ve blown out the highlights…. however it’s not 100% accurate as you’ll see here:
Based on this histogram, the sky is a disaster. There is a HUGE spike on the far right hand side, indicating it was blown out. It’s going to be totally ruined, and I fully expected it to be, and I took another photo at a lower exposure (darker) so that I would be able to fix any areas that were blown out…
This was the edited photo. There are one or two areas that are maybe a touch blown out but nothing compared to what I expected from the histogram.
Keep in mind that in our normal portraits, even a small spike to the right hand side when shooting backlight makes the bokeh totally white and without data. My suspicion here is that the sun was high enough and filtered enough by the clouds that although it was extremely bright, it didn’t actually loose data, unlike when you’re shooting through leaves and branches for texture, but the sun/sky on the other side is clear (and therefore has no further texture or filtering effect), and also that the balance of light is better, so we don’t need to underexpose as much to combat the light from the sky as we do when we’re in the woods.
In the gallery below, you’ll see some SOOC photos with their histogram, and the edited photo attached. Retaining detail in the sky is super important for me BUT… you are always going to have less blown out areas when there is a good amount of cloud cover, than if the sun is shining somewhere in the photo. You really cannot underexpose for the sun, and this is where you need a flash to overpower it. So making sure there’s clouds, or at sunset, making sure you keep the sun just out of the frame (you’ll see this in some of my sunset photos, the sun itself it just out of frame to the right) will make it less likely for you to blow out the highlights.
These photos are mostly only lightly edited. I wanted to show you the SOOC with the histogram, and an edit where I’d pulled out detail from the sky, to show you where some have blown-out areas, and others not.
In general, watching your histogram is highly recommended, but if you find yourself in a situation where you are already underexposing your subject quite a lot (as above. I didn’t want to go any darker on Journey) or you know your camera doesn’t handle underexposing that well, then you may need to use bracketing to help.
Bracketing can either be done manually, by you taking 2-3 photos at different exposures, or many cameras have this as an option for it to take 3-5 photos in rapid succession, at different exposure settings.
The idea here, is that you can take one photo for shadows, one for midtones, and one for highlights.
I usually simplify my life, and take one photo for the subject to be decently-well exposed, and one for the sky/highlights to now be blown out. I then mask these two together in Photoshop.
This can take some trial and error, especially in regard to how light/dark each of your exposures is, and where the subject is placed! If you have the dog with a bright sky directly behind it, and try and mask in the darker exposure, it’s going to be precise, tedious work and probably not look so natural. Similarly if you’re underexposing other bright elements, like water reflecting the sun, and this is around the dog, the exposure of the two “pieces” of the photo will be “off” if they’re drastically different from one another.
Here is an example of bracketing but done reasonably subtly due to the issues with a big mismatch in sky exposure vs. subject exposure. The sky photo is only slightly darker than the subject one, so Loki was still underexposed, but not as much as he would have needed to be if I’d just tried to expose everything for the sky.
In this second image, the sun had this most incredible spotlight shining down – and only for a second. So I snapped the photo with whatever settings I had at the time, then took one at a lower exposure to try and save the sky. As you can see, even in the lower exposure image, there is still a blown out spot where the sun was. The changes I’ve masked in are just to try and take away some of the distracting blown-out areas in the original, rather than to replace the whole sky.
If your camera can do auto bracketing this is also an option, however you need to make sure that it isn’t dropping the shutter speed to be too slow, in order to get more light to the sensor. This could result in motion blur and unusable images.
One more fun thing to try if you have very patient and solid dogs, is long exposures.
These are great for waterfalls, rivers, creeks and so on, to get that beautiful water-trailing effect.
In this case, you will be putting your shutter speed right down to about 1/10 of a second. I highly recommend you have your camera on something: a tripod, rock, your camera bag. There is already a very high chance of motion-blur from the dog simply breathing without adding in your hand motion. I also use the self-timer function on 2 seconds, or my remote shutter release with these photos, as it means there is no movement at all to the camera when I press and release the shutter button.
Since you’re letting in SO much light from the slow shutter speed, it’s highly likely your ISO will easily be at 100. Your image may still be overexposed, so in this case you will need to narrow your aperture, since there’s no other way to bring the exposure down (without a filter on your lens!).
You could theoretically also create these photos in two parts: one for the dog at a faster shutter speed, and one for the water much slower… but in the case of the photos above, I think masking around the dog will be a pain. And there may be a difference in noise or depth of field, since raising the shutter speed for the dog means needing to either raise the ISO, or widen the aperture. Of course, adding some noise to your background waterfall part of the image isn’t that difficult.