How to take your landscape photography to the next level
Ever witnessed a stunning mountain landscape but felt no picture you’d take could do it justice? Award-winning mountain photographer Mark Gilligan is here to change that...
QI sometimes get frustrated that my camera doesn’t capture the amazing mountain scenery I’m seeing with my eyes. How can I improve my results? James Hitchcroft, Brai■tree
Mark says When leading photography workshops, I always pose the following question to participants: ‘What would you like to achieve?’. The most common responses are, ‘a better understanding of my camera’ and ‘to accurately capture what’s in front of me, as I’m often disappointed with my results’.
The key thing to remember is that the camera you’ve shelled out on may have an excellent spec, and might appear to be an all-singing, all-dancing piece of kit, but in many circumstances – and especially for landscape photography – the device will need some help from its user.
So, if you’re looking to capture that ace picture for Trail’s UK Mountain Photo competition (page 61), here’s my top tips…
Compose it right
No matter what camera you possess – even if that’s a phone camera – good composition is vital, and a phrase I commonly use is ‘compose to expose’. There’s no use being technically competent as a photographer if the composition of your shots isn’t there.
Weigh up everything that lies before your eyes, then move around. Change the perspective of your shots by taking pictures from different heights (not just at eye-level) and look for a focal point or a lead-in line that draws the eye into the composition – as in the photo (left) looking across Wast Water.
Does that make a photo contrived? Of course, but that doesn’t denigrate the skill of the photographer. If a shot doesn’t look or feel right as you click the shutter release, it won’t do afterwards! I often say a beautiful view doesn’t always make for a beautiful photo, while iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams was famously quoted as saying, ‘We don’t take a photograph, we make it’.
A set of three basic graduated filters is a good addition to your kit, as these will help to balance the light in your composition. Obviously, it’s possible to modify images post-shoot, using software such as Photoshop, but surely it’s better to spend more time outside rather than sitting at a computer? Ultimately, it is the view that grabs you, so spend time getting the best from it.
Use your viewfinder
I see lots of people holding their cameras at arm’s length and using the LCD screen to compose their image, but viewfinders are there to be used. Granted, some cameras don’t possess a viewfinder, but if your camera has one then use it, as it will remove all that distraction going on around you.
Avoid the need to crop
I rarely crop a photograph at the postprocessing stage. Try cropping in-camera instead, by composing your image from edge to edge in your viewfinder. If you paid for a camera with 18 million pixels, use them! Try not to adopt the mindset that you can always crop an image later, as that may compromise the photograph you set out to achieve.
Focus on the focus
Image sharpness is another important factor. Selecting the correct point of focus, coupled with the best depth-of-field (the distance between the closest part of the photograph that is in focus and the most distant) is vital. Depth-of-field (DOF) is determined by the lens aperture setting, given as an f/number. The higher the f/number, the greater the DOF. A quick tip: using an aperture of f/11 and focusing around three metres away is a good general landscape setting.
Tripod or handheld?
Another question I get asked is, ‘do I always need a tripod?’. My answer is no. Set your camera’s ISO (a measure of sensitivity to light) to over 400 (the higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is) and, unless it’s really dim, you can simply handhold your camera. You’ll need a tripod for more creative shots, such as slowing down water to make it appear soft and silky, or creating a similar effect with clouds.
What is metering?
Metering is a method used to measure the intensity of light and help determine the required exposure level. Many cameras now offer several different metering options, including Evaluative and Matrix, with each having benefits for different subjects. For landscapes I prefer to select the Spot option, as it reduces the need for post-shoot editing. I spot meter on several features in the foreground of my composition (as shown in the shot of Birker Fell above), and then take a mean average to produce an even exposure.