I make no claims about my ability as a photographer, but if you do like my photos then the following describes how I try to maximise my chances of getting good images. This isn't intended as a comprehensive guide and it may not be best way of doing things; it's simply a description of what works for me.
The ability to consistently capture good images requires the following:
1. Being in the right place at the right time;
2. Having the right equipment;
3. Being able to see and compose the image;
4. Being able to capture the image; and
5. Being able to enhance the image if necessary.
I have therefore dealt with each of these five aspects of photography separately. I would suggest that, of the above, 1 and 3 are the most important and the most difficult to learn. The following advice applies mainly to landscape photography, or rather my own style of landscape photography.
Being in the right place at the right time
This is the aspect of photography that I find most difficult. Like most people I have limited time for photography, so I try to visit places at the times when they at their most photogenic. This will depend on the position of the sun, the weather and, for coastal locations, the state of the tide.
I have a mental list of places that I want to photograph and the conditions in which I think they are most likely to produce good photos. I try to imagine how sunlight will fall on these places at different times of the day/year and how this light might be affected by the weather. Deciding where to go at a particular time can be a quite a dilemma, but if in doubt I just go for an interesting walk or bike ride, which is always a pleasure regardless of whether I get any good photos.
Like many photographers I like to be out in the "golden hour" before sunset or after sunrise, to take advantage of the warm and less intense light. However, this isn't much good if the landscape feature that I want to be bathed in that light is in shadow, so some planning is required to choose the best locations to visit at these precious times. Generally speaking, south-facing slopes/cliffs will get the best evening/morning light in the winter, while north-facing features will get the best light in the summer. This is why most of my North Gower photos were taken in summer, while most of my South Gower photos were taken in winter.
The amount of cloud cover will have a dramatic effect on the light on the landscape and, of course, the backdrop to your image. Cloudless skies are, for me, the least interesting for landscape photography and tend to result in high contrast images with harsh shadows. In these conditions I'll usually leave most of my camera gear at home and enjoy the sunshine while doing other things, e.g. earning brownie points with my family while secretly scouting out locations to revisit in more interesting conditions. Cloud is usually a good thing when it's not obscuring the sun, so on cloudy days I try to anticipate when the sun will poke through gaps in the cloud and produce spectacular light. Days with sunshine and showers (rainbow weather) are often the best for landscape photography, providing less harsh light and interesting skies. On dull, overcast days I like to go on woodland walks, usually following a stream, as these low contrast conditions are ideal for these locations. Whatever the weather, there's no excuse for staying indoors; some of my favourite images were taken on days that I thought were far from ideal for photography.
At coastal locations, a further variable is the state of the tide. Generally I find that there are more opportunities for interesting photos at low tide. Where I live in South Wales, low tide tends to occur in the middle of the day or early afternoon on spring tides and in the morning on neap tides. This limits the opportunities to get to low tide marks at the best times for photography. In the winter I tend to look for morning low/neap tide opportunities or afternoon low/spring tide opportunities. Summer evenings with low/neap tides can also be very pleasant, but I rarely find the motivation to get up for sunrise in the summer.
Different combinations of weather, tide and the position of the sun can create endless possibilities for coastal landscape images, which is one of the reasons I love this type of photography.
Having the right equipment
The "right equipment" will depend on your budget, your aspirations and the type of photography you intend to do. I often read or hear people saying words to the effect that it doesn't matter what equipment you use as it's the photographer that makes the picture, not the camera. I also regularly read articles in magazines stating that items such as quality lenses, tripods, filters etc are "essential" to take good photos. The truth, of course, is somewhere in-between. You don't need lots of expensive equipment to take good photos, but it can help in a lot of situations.
I normally carry an APS-C cropped sensor digital SLR camera with a 17-85 mm (standard zoom) and a 10-22 mm (wide-angle) lens, plus a lightweight carbon fibre tripod. Depending on where/when I'm going, I may also carry a lightweight 55-250 mm telephoto and/or 105 mm macro lens, although the latter is mainly for close-ups rather than landscapes. I also carry a UV filter and a circular polarising filter. I use stepping rings to enable me to use these 77 mm filters with all my lenses. In 2016 I started carrying soft graduated neutral density (ND) filters and a Lee "Little Stopper" 6x ND filter, mainly with the intention of creating seascapes with longer exposure times.
If you're starting from scratch and have around £300 to spend I would suggest buying a digital SLR camera with a standard zoom ("kit") lens. If you can then afford to add a tripod, that will make a big difference to the number of opportunities to get good images, especially in low light. In high contrast situations, a tripod will also enable you to use graduated filters or to bracket exposures and blend them together on a computer.
If you start getting into it and/or have more cash to spare you may also want to consider the following:
- A wide angle lens - great for landscapes, especially where you want to include more of the foreground
- A telephoto lens - occasionally useful, but I use this much less often than my wide-angle.
- A polarising filter - I mainly use mine to improve colours in wet woodland scenes
- A UV filter - to protect the lens
- Other filters such as graduated filters (for reducing the contrast between sky and foreground) or neutral grey filters (for increasing exposure times, e.g. to create a blurred water effect)
- Upgrading your camera and/or lens(es) - it's probably better to invest in good lenses, at least in purely financial terms as a good lens will hold its value better than a camera
If you're serious about spending a lot of money on photography then there are plenty of more detailed articles and product reviews that you can read, so I won't go into any more detail here.
Seeing and composing the image
As well as being in the right place at the right time, this is probably what sets good photographers apart from the rest. There are some basic rules of composition that can be applied (e.g. rule of thirds - see Wikipedia for explanation) but these are only "rules of thumb" and they are there to be broken. If you are using a tripod then I would strongly suggest finding the best composition by hand before setting up the tripod. It's very easy to fall into the trap of simply setting up a tripod in a convenient place and at a convenient height, whereas a slight change in position might transform the image. I would recommend checking all your camera settings before you head out and then simplifying the image-capturing process as much as possible (see below) to allow you to concentrate more on experimenting with and finding the perfect composition. Another tip is to try not to forget what initially drew your eye to the scene (easily done when you're fiddling with a tripod, filters, camera settings etc) and don't be tempted to squeeze anything else in. Try to keep it simple.
Capturing the image
Once you've found the perfect composition and waited for the best light, you need your camera to capture the information you need to recreate the scene. A lot of photographers take pride in getting everything right "in camera" so they don't need to do much or any post- processing on a computer. Whilst I understand that ideal, I prefer to concentrate on getting the composition right and enjoying the scenery, in the knowledge that I can always make minor adjustments later on the computer. Time spent on the computer may seem like wasted time, but if it means I can make more of those even more precious moments out in the countryside, where the best light may only last for a few seconds, then it's worth it. Also, I find it satisfying transforming a drab or imperfect image into something a bit more special.
Once your camera and tripod are securely positioned, all you usually need to worry about is that everything is in sharp focus (where you want it to be) and that you've captured the detail (where you want it) in all the highlights and lowlights. With the above in mind, I like to customise my camera and stick to a consistent method so I hardly have to think about anything other than composition and waiting for the best light. The main exception to this is when I'm trying to capture the motion of water using a long exposure, which requires a bit more thought and experimentation.
My current camera (Canon EOS 7D) has 3 custom modes, which I set up as follows:
Custom mode 1
- Aperture priority
- ISO 100
- Bracketing +/- 1 EV
- Matrix metering
- Quality - Raw & JPEG
- Self timer - 2 seconds
Custom mode 2
- As Custom mode 1 by bracketing +/- 2 EV - for higher contrast situations
Custom mode 3
- As Custom mode 1 but with mirror lock-up and no bracketing - for lower contrast and/or low light situations and/or when using telephoto or macro lenses
The method I use in most situations is as follows:
1. Find the best composition while hand-holding the camera (you could use a cardboard frame instead)
2. Set up tripod as securely as possible and attach camera
3. Attach filter if necessary
4. Make sure lens is set to manual focus and with image stabiliser switched off
5. Manually focus at infinity. This works in most cases, except where I'm trying to include a very close foreground, in which case I will try to focus at the hyperfocal point to get everything in sharp focus, referring to hyperfocal distance charts if necessary (Google this if you need more explanation). I sometimes use live view to focus on an object that is roughly at the hyperfocal point.
6. Set camera to custom mode 1
7. Change aperture or ISO if necessary, e.g. to increase depth of field or to increase/decrease shutter speed, e.g. in windy conditions when the tripod may not be completely steady.
8. Shield lens and viewfinder from direct sunlight if necessary (e.g. use a lens hood, your hand or just stand in the way)
9. Press shutter release and wait for self-timer
10. View image(s) and check histograms to ensure that highlights and lowlights have been captured
11. If necessary, repeat with Custom mode 2 to capture high/lowlights. If the high/lowlights still haven't been captured with +/- 2 EV bracketing (Custom mode 2) then the chances are the final image won't look very natural anyway, so I usually don't bother going beyond that (hideous HDRs spring to mind).
If the above sounds complicated then I can assure you that it's a lot simpler than having to check all the individual camera settings each time. Unfortunately, not all DSLRs have custom modes and some have only one, which is one of the reasons I chose the Canon 7D. If you don't have custom modes you'll just have to check all your camera settings each time and hope you're not as forgetful as me.
When using ND filters for long exposures, I switch to manual mode and experiment by trial and error.
Enhancing the image
If you get everything right "in camera" then hopefully you won't need to do much post-processing on a computer to recreate the image as you originally saw it. In practice, however, most photos will benefit from some enhancement to bring the best out of them. Before processing the images you need to download them, back them up and select the best ones for processing. I try to stick to a consistent workflow as follows:
1. Download images to a PC (Canon software conveniently puts them in a folder named "yyyy_mm_dd")
2. Copy all images to a hard drive (filed by date) and then delete the images from the camera.
3. Recharge the camera battery and get camera ready for the next session (check settings, lens etc)
4. Move the images to a folder called "to be sorted" (keeping the "yyyy_mm_dd" sub-folder)
5. View JPEGs to select the best images and move the equivalent RAW files to a folder called "to be processed" with sub-folders for each year
6. Delete all the unselected images from the PC (I've still got them on the external hard drive)
Note that the above workflow results in a large number of useless images taking up a lot of space on backup hard drives. You can spend time reviewing and deleting these to free up space, but I value my time too much to bother with this, at least while file storage keeps getting cheaper.
I use cloud storage for all processed images and their associated RAW files (see below).
My image editing process is as follows:
1. Select the most promising RAW files and open these in the camera's raw image editing software (i.e. Canon Digital Photo Professional)
2. Remove all sharpness.
3. Experiment with adjusting the white balance. I sometimes create two files: one with the camera's shot settings and another with the "shade" setting. This allows me to selectively apply warmth to areas of the image without creating an unnatural orange cast to the whole image.
4. Convert the image(s) to TIFF files.
5. Open in Photoshop and blend (see below) the images if necessary (e.g. bracketed exposures or different white balance) to create a master file, named IMG_xxxx_master.tif (I always keep the original file name as part of the new name so I can trace the original RAW files if necessary).
6. Inspect the image for dust spots and remove these using the spot healing brush.
7. Add or edit the File Info to include author and copyright info if necessary.
8. Enhance (see below) the image using levels or curves if necessary - go easy at this stage!
9. If necessary, crop or rotate the image (e.g. to straighten horizon) and save under a new file name (e.g. IMG_xxxx_master_cro.tif).
10. Sharpen the image using unsharp mask as necessary and save under a new file name (e.g IMG_xxxx_master_cro_usm.tif or .jpg).
After completing the above process I keep and back up the following files:
1. The original RAW file(s)
2. The "master" TIFF file (all edits that have been applied to this file are reversible)
3. The cropped, rotated and/or distorted TIFF files, if created (these changes are not reversible)
4. The final sharpened JPEG or TIFF file (normally a JPEG is all I need and I can easily create a sharpened TIFF file if later required, e.g. for printing)
All other files can be deleted. I then use the final sharpened image to create a web-friendly version (if required) using the "save for web" function in Photoshop.
In the image editing process (above) the terms "blend" and "enhance" probably require more explanation.
The blending process involves merging one or more aligned images to allow you to use the best parts of each image. For example, if you have bracketed your exposures you may have an overexposed sky in one image and an underexposed foreground in another image; by blending these together you can create a final image that is correctly exposed throughout. This process can by automated using the "merge to HDR" tool in Photoshop or can even be done "in camera" with some cameras, but these methods can result in unnatural looking images. I prefer to do it manually to have more control over the final result. The method I normally use is as follows:
1. Open two or more TIFF files in Photoshop
2. "Select all", copy and paste one image onto another as a new layer
3. Add a layer mask (Ctrl + Z)
4. Use a brush tool to selectively blend parts of one image into another.
5. Merge the layers to create a new "master" TIFF file.
Before enhancing an image I always create a new layer (Ctrl + J), which gives me the option of only applying the adjustments to selected parts of the image using the blending technique described above. The usual enhancements involve tweaking the levels and curves to add a little more punch to the image where necessary. This is something I've learned through trial and error and I can't really explain it here. The main thing is to try not to overdo it and end up with something that looks unnatural. I rarely find the need to increase colour saturation as modern DSLR cameras produce well-saturated images straight from the camera.
Occasionally I will experiment by converting images to black and white and enhancing them with the channel mixer, but most of my landscape images seem to work better in colour. If there are distracting features in the landscape (e.g. litter, people or telegraph wires) then it's possible to remove them using a clone brush in Photoshop. I see nothing wrong with doing this if it improves the image, as long as you're not making any claims that your final picture is an accurate representation of reality. As far as I'm concerned, photography is an art form and as long as you're honest you should be able to create any image you want. Generally speaking though, if a landscape image looks like it's been "photoshopped" then you've probably overdone it, at least for my taste.
Feel free to ignore all of the above and create your own methods and style. Above all, enjoy yourself.