Landscape capture workflow


Some soap-box philosophy

Let me start by saying I don’t view my camera as a Polaroid instant camera.  That is, I don’t accept the efforts of the tiny processor and limited software inside it in producing a finished landscape image.   I see this sort of idea bandied about in print magazines and on forums across the intertubes:  “get it right in camera” they say.  What absolute rubbish.  What magic does it add to use the camera’s limited post-capture  processing as opposed to the might of Photoshop, Lightroom, Photomatix, Oloneo et al to produce the finished image?  It’s still processed by software.

“Don’t tamper with the image” is another axiom.  This is only important if you’re making a documentary.  Landscape photography is all about mood, emotion etc.  Who cares if the sky was really that colour?  Your camera doesn’t see what you see.  Your eyes cope with around 11 stops of light.  Your DSLR only around 5.   If you used a focal length much below or above 50mm, you are not capturing the field of view your eyes do, and the image will be distorted versus the one your eyes supplied to your brain.  Plus, if you shoot jpeg, your camera processed the image for colour, sharpening, contrast just the same as you might do in Photoshop – the only difference is that the settings were decided by the software engineers at Nikon/Canon et al a long time before you took the picture.  My point is – you already altered the scene by using a camera and not your eyes, and my advice (which can take or ignore of course) is that you get over this and liberate yourself from this restricted thinking.  Move forward to capture the mood of the scene – the emotion it evoked when you saw it.

I treat my camera as a data gathering device.  Nothing more.  I don’t use any of the post capture processing such as “Active D-Lighting”, “Magic pixie pixel improvement” or “picture control”.  I capture the raw data.  Even white balance and colour space are just tags in the image.  Specifying “ProPhoto” doesn’t capture any more data in the raw file.  Setting the white balance doesn’t affect what is captured – this tag just tells the viewing software how to render the colours in the picture.

OK I’ll now put away my handy fold-up soap box.

How to capture data for your landscape images.

This is the technical approach I take to this – or aim to take.  Sometimes, in all the excitement, I forget a step, or do them in the wrong order which causes me re-work.   For example, on the shot above, when the light finally piled in, I was so busy trying to capture a number of angles, compositions and focal lengths I forgot to check the ISO, so if anyone was looking at the EXIF and wondering why I needed ISO 1000 to capture this, it’s er.. because I forgot to put it back to 100 after shooting the local wildlife (with the camera :P)….

There are 3 things to set in order to capture the right image data.  Do them in this order:  it’s the best path to getting all 3 right:-

  • Composition
  • Focus
  • Exposure

The rules of composition are many and varied.  For a full explanation of how these work, I recommend Michael Freeman’s “The Photographer’s Eye”, however a brief look at how to avoid common composition pitfalls is in order.

Consider the balance of the shapes the image.  What is the subject of the shot?  Place this where your eye will naturally alight.  Many essays of composition preach the rule of  “thirds”  (placing the subject on the intersection of lines that divide the frame into thirds).   This is fine as a starting point, but debases the actual rules of composition which are a bit more complex than that  (the Fibonacci sequence of diminishing triangle patterns, the Gestalt principles of closure and our constant searching for patterns and shapes in a scene etc).  Western cultures read left to right, and the same goes for images.  We tend to start at the bottom left and work inwards.   Your aim should be to create a path into the image, but block the route out on the right – by making that part darker, or innocuous, or by the shapes in the image that steer the viewer’s gaze.  Don’t place bright objects, or text at the edge of the image as these attract the viewer’s attention immediately and from there they are likely to wander out of the frame.

I compose the image sometimes using a plastic frame cut from DVD case.  I know roughly what distance to hold it from my eye equates to a focal length.  Mostly though, I look through the camera viewfinder hand-held wondering around the scene.  Try different heights, landscape and portrait and different focal lengths until you find a picture that works.  Remember to consider the foreground.  Take your eye from the camera at this point without moving the camera too much and look at where it is.   You should now aim to put the top of your tripod at this point and mount the camera.

Compose the image again with the camera on the tripod.  Pay attention to the details now, looking around the edges of the frame.  Balance the elements and fine tune the framing.

Once the image is composed, we need to set the focus on the lens.  We usually want the largest depth of field we can get for landscape photography.    Our eyes re-focus really quickly, so as we look around a scene, it feels as if it is all in focus.  Of course it isn’t really:  hold your finger up in front of your eyes, as close as you can focus on it.  Close one eye.  Observe how the background is out of focus.  This  is more noticeable in low light, when your “aperture”  (iris) is wider.  So, to mimic what our brain perceives from the constantly re-focussing eyes, we must make all of the image appear to be in focus, for effective landscape shots.

Our depth of field is from the closest piece of foreground, to the background, which is usually far enough away to treat as infinity.  Start by measuring the distance from the sensor (back of the camera) to the nearest piece of foreground you can see in the viewfinder.  You may need to place something bright in the frame whilst looking through the viewfinder to locate this – especially with ultra wide lenses.  You can use a metal tape measure to do this.  I use a laser range finder.    With this distance, the size of your sensor and the focal length of the lens you can calculate where to focus the lens, and the size of aperture required to get the nearest foreground and the background in focus.  I use an app on my iPhone called “Optimum CS” to do this.  Other people work out tables for the lenses and bodies they use.   These calculations aim to use the widest aperture you can get away with for the required depth of field.  Lenses tend to perform best usually around the f/4 to f/8 range, so you want to avoid stopping down to smaller apertures if possible.  Your sensor will also suffer from diffraction caused by really small apertures (smaller than f/11 on a 35mm sensor and smaller than f/8 on an APS-C sensor).

Once you know the focussing distance, use your tape measure to find an object that distance away from the camera back.  Point the camera at that object and use the autofocus to focus on it.  Now switch off autofocus and re-compose the shot.  You camera is now perfectly focussed for the scene in the viewfinder.  Be careful not to knock the focussing ring.

Put the camera in aperture priority and check the other settings – ISO at optimal  (100 on most sensors, 200 on the D700, D3 and some other DSLRs).  Attach the remote lead or other trigger and take a shot.    Adjust the exposure using the compensation control and take more shots until the foreground has the right exposure.  Make a note of the exposure (shutter speed) and chnage the exposure mode to manual.  Dial in the same aperture and shutter speed that you had in aperture mode.  Now look at the highlight clipping in the sky.  Attach ND grad filters to fix the sky or if the skyline is too complex, try a 5 shot bracket, 1 stop apart.  If you are bracketing, use continuous high speed at first while you set the bracket up.  After each sequence, look for a shot that has no highlight clipping and a shot that has no shadow clipping.  Aim to take the minimum amount of shots that meet this goal. Adjust the shutter speed to move the starting point of the exposure up and down to achieve this.

Once you have your exposure solution (whether it be filters or multiple shots) change to mirror-lock-up mode and close, or cover the viewfinder:  on longer exposures light entering through the viewfinder can contaminate the image with light streaks.  Raise the mirror, wait 1 or 2 seconds for the vibrations this causes to die away and then take the shot.  If you are bracketing, repeat for all the shots in the sequence.  Always bracket by varying the shutter speed, never the aperture or ISO.

Check the shot.  Zoom in on the LCD and examine the focus all around the image.  For regular images, at this point, you are done with the data capture.

For long exposures (to blur water or clouds etc), read the shutter speed from the display, and multiply it by 2 to the power of the number of stops your ND filter is.  For a 3 stop filter for example, multiply the shutter speed by 2^3 or 8.   So if your shutter speed was 1/20th it is now 2/5ths.  For a 10 stop, multiply by 2^10 or 1024.  You may need to play around with these values as most ND filters are never quite the number of stops they claim to be.  Attach your ND filter, dial in the calculated shutter speed in manual mode and take the shot.  If it is too dark, or too light, adjust the shutter speed and go again.  Note that the EV compensation has no effect in manual mode – you must change the shutter speed.  Because you read the original shutter speed from the display in aperture mode, the EV compensation was already factored in.

If you need to use a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds, go to “bulb” mode on the shutter speed and use a stopwatch or timer remote.  If you want to bracket long exposures, these are best done manually:  take another shot at half the shutter speed and another at twice the shutter speed.  Note, that despite what all the magazine articles about what mirror lock-up is for say;  mirror slap has very little effect on long exposures  (i.e. 10 seconds or more) as it only affects 5% of the exposure time.  In fact, during very long exposures (minutes long) I’ve even wiped spray off the front filter with a cloth half way through with no visible effect.


 What sort of thing to shoot?

  • Big vistas, wide angle – try to get some foreground:  a rock, flower etc.
  • Lead-in lines – lines of rock, a road, river, hedge etc to lead the viewer into the shot
  • Water.  Moving water with static rocks.  Water as a reflector
  • Autumn colours with mist and cloud
  • Early or late sun on mountain peaks
  • Rays of sunlight shining down through stormy clouds
  • Sunsets  (photographers are attracted to sunsets like flies to sh*t, however you do need to get it out of your system).
  • Texture detail – bark, wood grain, pebbles, rocks etc
  • Lighthouses, windmills


Kit review

  • Your camera obviously…
  • A wide angle zoom lens
  • A telephoto zoom
  • Tripod and Ball head
  • Cable release
  • Hot shoe spirit level – to get your horizons straight
  • Measuring device (tape, rangefinder)
  • Fold Dry-Bags – to cover the camera on the tripod if it rains.  Some of the best light is just after a downpour.
  • Lens cloth – micro-fibre cloths are good for this
  • Rocket blower
  • Head torch  (it’s often dark when taking landscape shots)
  • Filters – Lee or HiTech are good brands


Other resources

Google Earth is an invaluable tool for landscape photography.   One of the most powerful features in Google Earth is the sun simulator.  If you turn on “terrain”, GE will produce an accurate 3D map of the landscape, with the aerial photography or satellite imagery laid on top.  Turn on the Sun, and GE will simulate the shadows the sun would cast on the terrain.  This is particularly effective if you lower the viewpoint to near ground level – the terrain casts shadows.  Now here comes the good bit – you can drag the slider on the sun to move the time of day, and the date.  Using these tools, you can see the range of dates or exact date you need to be there to get the light coming from the angle you want.  Earth also contains the Panoramio photo database – which can give you an idea of shots to take around a location.

The Photographers Ephemeris is another great tool for planning a landscape shoot.  It will draw the angle of the sun at any given date and time in a location.

Luminous Landscape is a great resource for learning landscape photography.


Mobile apps

  • Optimum CS – calculates optimum aperture and focus distance for your shots.
  • Focalware – a sun compass for your iPhone – use in the field to predict when the sun will rise or set from a desired angle.
  • Weatherpro – raw weather data and hour by hour forecasting, plus satellite cloud pictures.
  • TidePlan – Tide tables useful for planning beach shoots


Good landscape photography

Andrew Kime 

Bruce Percy

Joe Cornish

David Noton

Charlie Waite

Simon Butterworth

David Ward

Richard Childs

Adam Burton








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