The secret to taking fantastic landscape photos

Many photographers (amateurs and professionals) search their whole lives for the trick, the magic formula, or the recipe which guarantees fantastic pictures every time they press the shutter release button. However, a short cut like that doesn't exist; because each scene, each landscape to be photographed requires special attention. I want to share with you some of what I have learned. These are my own personal tips for a beautiful shot, nearly every time.

The Decision

A fantastic picture doesn't develop from a vague idea, rather from an investment, a decision to dedicate yourself fully to the art of photography. This doesn't mean that you have to spend thousands of dollars on specialized, high tech, super sensitive equipment. What I mean by investment is that you have to be ready to spend your time, a lot of it, and energy searching for the right place at the right time and most importantly but often neglected the right light. Different than a snapshot, photography is very rarely the result of luck, instead in most cases a 'good eye', a technical flair, a pinch of talent, and of course -  a lot of time. Thus, the first step is to dedicate yourself fully to the art of photography.

Technical Basic

Knowing how to use a camera, understanding the terms; aperture, shutter speed and ISO-settings, are the basic requirements for a technically well-done picture. I use the term "technically well-done" instead of "successful" because the two are nto the same, but more about this later.

This technical know-how is the first hurdle because learning how aperture, shutter-speed and ISO work together to capture an image can be difficult for people who don't have a technical background or are intimidated by technical jargon. The good news is that unlike learning a musical instrument - which takes months if not years - these rules of interplay can be learned effortlessly in just a few days.

Practice Makes Perfect - Routine Settings

This rule applies to everything we strive to master in life. Being in the right place, at the right time and with the right light will all be for nothing if you miss the moment because your are adjusting, readjusting and second guessing your camera settings. The most beautiful moment when the light is perfect, the colors are vibrant and all the other variables come together, fade away quickly, very quickly, a couple of seconds, to a maximum of a few minutes. In these moments, everything must happen very rapidly, the camera operation should be by reflex almost without looking, having been repeated and practiced, to take full advantage of the moment.

To avoid missing the moment, with questions like "which aperture should I use now?" you need to develop a routine and practice that routine until your hands know it without thinking.

Example 1: For a sunrise, the camera should be attached to a tripod with the following settings:

  • Aperture: 13 for full-frame / 11 for CROP
  • ISO: 50 or 100
  • Polarization-Filter
  • GND filter-holder is mounted and the filters near at hand
  • Mirror-Lock-up is activated
  • Timer is set to 2 seconds
  • Stabilizer OFF
  • File-format RAW (initially RAW & JPEG)

Example 2: The camera is stored in the camera case with settings that make it possible to be used immediately if needed:

  • Aperture: 9 for full-frame / 7.1 for CROP
  • ISO 200
  • Polarization-Filter ready
  • GND filterpocket near at hand
  • ONE SHOT (for Canon) / AF-S (for Nikon/Sony)
  • Stabilizer ON
  • File-format RAW (initially RAW & JPEG)

The Camera; Your Best Companion

Beginner photographers of landscape or nature photography are often surprised by the first "moments" they experience. All too often, the camera is at home left in its padded case. It shouldn't be in the case, the camera should always be with you. If you are not willing to carry three to five kilos of basic equipment, you are doomed to fail.

Enjoying Life With Open Eyes

Far more important than the technical aspect is the artistic one. The technical basics of photography are learned easily and mastered with practice. However, to develop an artist's eye, a photographer requires more engagement and time. A good photographer is a photographer 24/7.

One very beneficial skill is to be able to judge the weather conditions. Clouds and light are the most crucial factors in landscape photography. To the keen observer, they reveal everything an dallow you to look a few hours into the future without the need to resort to the weather app on your iPhone. The worst weather conditions fo rlandscape shots are; cloudless blues skies, gray overcast and rainy days when the sky is either white or gray. The best conditions for spectacular photographs are the phases between meteorological low and high-pressure systems. The sky is perfect; the clear clean air provides a long-range of sight, with scattered clouds to add contrast and compsitional elements to the picture. The most beautiful sunsets or sunrises happen shortly after strong storms pass; wind, rain or snow storms. The blue cloudless sky seems to be the most inviting opportunity for a fantastic landscape picture at first but, honestly it can't be surpassed in its doldrums. It contributes to flat or colorless sunsets and sunrises, strong polarization stains (if a polarizing filter is used), and contrastless skies.

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 1: many mountain stations and high buildings are equipped with high-resolution webcams. Check these to find out about the current weather conditions in your target area.

Preparation for a Photography Trip

Nowadays, photographers have a fabulous tool at their disposal, called Google Earth. This app/website allows for an exact calculation of shadow-times for any given coordinate on the Earth. It is also possible to access pictures of a specific location taken and uploaded by other Google users. Smart advanced planning prevents you from having to look for a hill which has a direct sight line to the sunset. For iPhone users, I recommend using the TPE for IOS tool. The world is being flooded with photo books of all kinds, thanks to good and cheap providers like BLURB. It has never been easier to thoroughly plan a photography trip.

A Photography Trip Is Not a Holiday

Spending one week on a photography tour is not like spending a week at the beach. There is never time to relax, you don't get enough sleep, you drive great distances every day, and you are always chasing the "moment". Instead of having a nice breakfast or dinner in a restaurant, you live on energy bars and trail mix while hiking up to dozens of vantage points hoping that you'll arrive at the exact time of the day with favorable weather conditions providing for optimal circumstances to take pictures. Let me tell you, once everything comes together and you get that one shot right in the magical moment - the reward is thousandfold. An excellent landscape photographer is a hunter and a collector of these moments. 

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 2: If a guide book recommends a certain amount of time to spend in a region (e.g. "for this coast line we recommend two days"), double the time. Don't tie yourself down by booking exact arrival and departure dates; it can happen that once you have arrived, you want to stay longer in a magnificent location in a country you are visiting for the first time.

Some photographers, in their pre-trip planning have found, printed and maybe even studied well-known pictures that other photographers have taken of a location they have in mind to visit. Then they try to reconstruct or reproduce the same picture with their camera. An example of this is the Delicate Arch in Utah. Thousands of photographers shoot pictures of this outcropping annually - pictures which in many cases aren't distinctive. All while our Earth has a plethora of remarkable locations that are rarely if every photographed. To discover these places and capture them in their moment of perfect light is in my opinion the greatest goal of a photographer. Unfortunately, this doesn't match up with the picture market's demand, because the buyers (agencies, tourists, collectors) want to buy photos of well known monument-like scenes because they have a high revognition and resale value.

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 3: don't try to reconstruct well-known pictures. Look for new subjects and develop, as fast as possible, your own style of photography. Give your pictures a personal touch.

Specialize

Photography is a very diverse art; encompassing weddings, macro, nature, landscape, people, fashion, and food photography to name just a few. Many beginning photographers, out of a newly found passion, try to master all of these forms at once, this is a mistake. While it's possible to tackle all of them, pgrogess will be very slow, because each has its own kind of magical moment and achieving this requires a considerable time investment. So, unless you are one of those rare humans that doesn't have to sleep or work, focus on one single area an specialize in it, learn the steps, practice and practice some more and you will have a better chance to achieve something beautiful.

Don't Become a Camera or Lens Tester

The career of many hobby and amateur photographers ends in an exaggerated joy of technicalities, resolutions and lens acuteness scales . Thousands and thousands of photographers hang out on the major photography forums and forget, because of their infatuation with everything technical, that cameras are made to shoot pictures and not to test if the lens X with aperture Y at focal length Z yields chromatic aberrations at the picture borders. Far too many photographers still think that the best camera in combination with the best lens automatically shoots the best pictures.

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 4: Buy a camera and a lens which fit into your budget and suit your requirements. Then go shoot pictures! Don't spend precious daylight reading (or even writing) benchmarks of better and more expensive cameras.

Pictures Are Created BEHIND the Viewfinder

Ninety percent of all photography relies on the following factors:

  • To be in the right placeat the right time with the most favorable light conditions
  • To choose the optimal display window and picture details
  • To know how to correctly employ filters (Graduated filters, ND-filters or POL-filters)
  • To know how to technically configure the camera appropriately (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure measurement, etc.)
  • to choose the best picture, post-process it, and publish it in the right location

The remaining ten percent is dependent on your equipment (the factors in-front of the viewfinder):

  • Resolution and picture quality; imposed by the lens and the camera

Get Up Early and Wait for the Pay Off

During a photography trip, (I mentioned lack of sleep already) getting up early is the first step. Out of ten early morning excursions, you may perhaps experience only one or two lucky situations (a colorful sunrise, a rare animal, etc.). However, it is worthwhile all the time. My personal method is in the stars.

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 5: The Stars-Technique: I set the alarm clock to wake me up one to two hours before sunrise. I step outside and look for the stars. If I can spot at least one star, I immediately depart to the sunrise location. If no stars can be seen, or it's raining, I repeat this test thirty minutes before sunrise. If by then no improvement of the conditions has occurred, I go back to bed and enjoy a well-deserved sleep (which is rare on these kinds of trips.)

Become a Filter Aficionado

Filters such as Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND), Neutral Density filters and Polarization-filters have been used by photographers for decades. Not much has changed in the last few years; only that GNDcan be partially simulated digitally with filters in software programs like Lightroom 3 and 4, CS5/6, or Capture One. However, a loss-free digital replacement for a GND filter of factor 0.9, 1.2 or 1.5 is not available. A GND Filter is more transparent on one half and gradually shaded darker on the other half. In this way, portions of the picture which are too bright are able to be shaded down. Thus, the picture appears in the same way that your eyes perceive it, a simple and powerful way to simulate the way that their usage is not apparent in the final picture. For example, a hard GND filter - if used incorrectly - generates a hard shading line in the middle of the photo.

How to use Photoshop Without Damaging the Reputation of all Other Photographers

Photoshop is an extremely useful and important tool. Unfortunately, untalented photographers trying to improve their pictures, to make them one thousand percent more colorful, have severely harmed the reputation of all photographers, while nearly obliterating the credibilitiy of landscape photographers completely. Approximately 90% of people who look at a landscape calendar picture claim that the picture was manipulated and that the real scene could never have looked that beautiful. This trend is especially painful for prefessional phtographers who spend half the year outside in the elemnts, hunting for the pefect sunrise or sunset, that magical moment of perfect light. Six months of hard work and inexhaustible searching, result in only a dozen pictures which have all the aesthetic properties one could wish for.

Conclusion: if the sky was not red when you took the picture of the sunset - leave it like that. Don't misuse Photoshop to generate something that wasn't there in the first place. Repeated attempts to generate dream pictures have undermined the trust in photographers to such a degree that the authenticity of their work is constantly in doubt.

Taking Photos Instead of Shooting "Pics"

I don't agree with the current opinion that taking pictures has become easier. As explained earlier, "Pictures Are Created BEHIND the Viewfinder", technology only plays a minor role in prducing good pictures. The automatic-mode may be as clever as a computer; but it will never be able to choose the perfect picture composition and frame, not the right moment of triggering. However, the claim that taking a technically sharp and correctly illuminated picture has become easier is surely correct, but a sharp and bright picture does not automatically mean it is a good picture.

Since the introduction of the exposure-series function (a camera takes 3-11 shots of the same subject with variant exposures) more and more photographers use their cameras like machine guns. Unable to determine the correct exposure either from a lack experience and know-how or just plain laziness, they set the camera to exposure-series and combine it into an HDR or just select the picture with the best exposure out of the series. In this way, photographers can quickly create 5,000 to 8,000 pictures per week. Then, these same photographers complain about how sorting and precessing their pictures takes them weeks if not months to complete.

Stefan Forster Photography TIP 6: Be aware that every picture you take, also takes (real) time from you. With this in mind, craft your photos, study the light, add in the clouds and you will save storage memory, batteries and a lot of work and time while taking uniquely beautiful natural photos.

The Crème de la Crème

Finally home, after a good night's sleep and a hearty meal; you are sitting in front of your computer with megabytes and terabytes of raw material in front of you. Now comes the toughest part of your work: the selection of the best and the deletion of the rest. The goal: discard 90-95% and keep the rest, only the best. The next step is to process your best pictures using RAW converter software (Lightroom, CS6 ACR, Capture One, etc.) Classes are available to learn the best way to do this final, but very important part.

Show Your Pictures!

After all the time you spent planning your trip, researching vantage points, getting up early, hiking, driving all over God's creation, waiting, and more waiting for that magical moment, then the sorting, balancing and cropping are you going to imprison your work as a screen saver? I hope you intend to present your mesmerizing pictures to the world. There are numerous ways to do this. The most efficient way to reach the largest audience is by uploading them to your own website with an aesthetically pleasing gallery. Another way is to produce photo calendars or books. But, without a doubt, the most beautiful way, but also the most expensive, is to print the pictures on high quality photo paper and create framed murals. I hope my words have inspired you, to take your camera with you, discover the photographer within you and hunt those magical moments.

Stefan Forster, International Landscape Photographer SBF INT