Take your landscapes to the next level
Satisfyingly sore muscles and a breathtaking view aren’t the only prizes for a brisk walk in the countryside. In the last installment of our landscape improvement course, we’re going to show you how to take your photography to the next level...
Shoot in beautiful golden light
If you’ve never heard a landscape photographer extol the vibrant beauty of golden hour, then perhaps you’re hanging around with the wrong kind of photographers. Golden hour is the name given to the period of time when the sun starts to dip above or below the horizon at sunrise or sunset. It’s called as such because the quality of light turns to a brilliant gold hue, capable of totally transforming an ordinary landscape into a jaw-droppingly good photo.
The most important aspect of capturing that all-important golden light is being in the right place at the right time. Without careful planning, you can run the risk of turning up to a location ten minutes after all the action has happened. The best way to prepare for success is to find out exactly when sunrise or sunset is due, and then ensure that you’re there at least half an hour before the magic will happen. This will give you plenty of time to set up your kit and find the perfect composition.
It’s easier than ever to find out what time you need to be at your location. Even simply typing in ‘sunset time’ into Google will provide you with the exact time the sun will dip below the horizon in your location on that day. However, if you don’t want to leave anything to chance, then why not download an app like PhotoPills or Photographer’s Ephemeris? Not only can you look into the future to plan upcoming photo trips, but you can even view maps of your desired location to find out which direction the sun will be rising or setting.
Once you’ve arrived at your location, with plenty of time to spare, you need to set up your kit. While golden light is notoriously beautiful, it can also be a bit tricky to capture. It’s often said that the eye is the most sophisticated camera in the world, and this is because we can see both brightly lit areas and dark shadows (in the same view) without a problem. However, many amateur cameras can struggle under these conditions, as they can’t expose for both extreme highlights and shadows.
This is why the Fujifilm X-T2 is such a great companion for landscape photographers. Its high dynamic range (the measurement between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks) means that it can comfortably capture bright highlights and dark shadows without losing key details. To ensure that you get the perfect exposure, it’s always best to expose for the highlights (i.e. the brightest areas), as it’s much easier to pull back detail from shadows than it is from something that’s completely washed out with light.
Fujifilm expert: Chris Upton
Q What’s the best part of shooting a sunrise or sunset?
"In landscape photography the light is everything, and there’s no better time to shoot than at the beginning or end of the day. However, to get good images you need to be shooting well before the sun rises, or continue well after it sets. In fact, the best light is often in that period of about 20 minutes before/after the sun reaches the horizon. Blue hour, the period of time when the centre of the sun is around -5 degrees below the horizon, can often be the perfect time to shoot. During this period the sky is a rich blue, creating amazing photos. However, you have to be quick, as it doesn’t last very long! I’ve just returned from Santorini, where the ‘blue hour’ lasted all of about 12 minutes!"
Q How do you adjust your setting to deal with the low light?
"When the light levels drop it can be difficult to expose and focus correctly. This means that shooting with a tripod is non-negotiable. This is when I prefer to shoot in manual, so I’ve got full control of my exposure and focusing. I’ll maintain as low an ISO as possible and select an appropriate aperture, so that the shutter speed is the only variable. To do this, I switch my Fujifilm X-T2 to ‘T’ on the shutter dial, and then simply use the rear command dial to change the exposure."
Q Do you plan your shoot beforehand?
"I always plan sunrise and sunset shoots. They’re fundamentally different, in that you’re either arriving or leaving in pitch darkness. Sunrise is definitely trickier, as you’ll need to have scouted your location beforehand. Otherwise you’ll find it difficult to get the best composition. When planning I use weather forecasts and apps to understand not only sunrise/sunset timings, but also the angle and direction of the sun."
Q What happens when you get disappointing golden light?
"All the planning in the world is no match for Mother Nature! If the shoot doesn’t work out, then a return trip is the only answer. You have to be pragmatic and accept that sometimes it just doesn’t happen. However, all is not lost! You’ve had a great recce of your location and you’ll know what to expect next time."
Understand manual mode
While camera technology is no doubt the best it’s ever been, the automatic mode is still no match for the human eye and mind. When a camera chooses your settings, you’re losing out on a vital part of the creative process. Photography doesn’t just have to be about composition, it can also be about choosing the right settings for the perfect shot.
There are three modes you can use to take control over your camera, manual, aperture priority and shutter priority. Each mode has its own particular uses, especially when it comes to landscape photography. If you’re interested in total control over your exposure, then you’ll want to switch your camera to manual mode.
The three main settings that you can control in manual mode are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Aperture controls how much blur there is in an image. If you’re shooting a portrait, you would want a wide aperture of around f/4, as this would isolate the model and cast the background into blur. However, for landscape photography you’ll want a large aperture of f/16 upwards instead. This will render your shot sharp all the way though your frame.
Shutter speed is another essential aspect of the exposure triangle. If you’re working handheld then you’ll need to keep your shutter speed above 1/60sec. If you go any slower than this, then you’ll start to risk camera shake. The narrower your aperture (i.e. the higher the number), the longer your shutter speed will have to be in order to get a correct exposure. This is because the aperture ring inside your lens is a bladed diaphragm that widens and shrinks to adjust the amount of light that comes through. This is why we would call f/4 a wide aperture – because the aperture ring is physically at its widest inside the lens, allowing in lots of light. The narrow apertures typically required for landscape photography make that diaphragm physically smaller, allowing less light in, and therefore requiring a longer shutter speed.
The last variable to wrap your head around is ISO. This essentially controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is, and the more detail it can capture. This is really helpful in low light conditions, such as sunset or sunrise. However, the unfortunate trade-off is that the higher the ISO, the more ‘noise’ you’ll get in your shot, marring the image quality. Working in manual mode is all about balancing these three variables to create an accurate exposure. However, if you’re particularly interested in controlling either your aperture or shutter speed, and you’d rather not think about the other, then why not use a priority mode.
In aperture priority, you can adjust the aperture and the camera will then automatically select an appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure. Shutter priority mode is a similar process, but flipped around. To make things even easier for yourself, put your camera into Auto ISO to allow it to choose what ISO is best for the situation.
Where: Innominate Tarn, Lake District
Map and grid ref: OS Explorer OL4, NY197129
Getting there: Innominate Tarn nestles in a small hollow just beneath the summit of Hay Stacks, a near-2000ft mountain in the Lake District. To reach it, take the long footpath that climbs Hay Stacks from the little hamlet of Gatesgarth, and return via the little valley of Warnscale.
Why visit? Hay Stacks is surrounded by much larger fells, making it a perfect viewpoint. In the background here are Green Gable, Great Gable and Kirk Fell. The calm sheen of the tarn frames the views perfectly. It is also the final resting place of guide writer Alfred Wainwright, whose ashes were scattered at the tarn after his death in 1991.
Fujifilm expert: Chris Upton
Q What setting do you typically use for landscape photography and why?
"I typically shoot in aperture priority, as I’m looking to control my depth-of-field. Since I normally use a tripod the shutter speed is basically irrelevant to me, unless of course I’m using it for creative effect. I’ll also shoot in manual, especially at the beginning and end of the day when light levels can be tricky and I need to be in full control. The Fujifilm X-T2 allows me to assign the rear command dial to shutter speed when in ‘T’ mode, which means that I can make adjustments without moving my eye from the viewfinder. I’ve also found that the live histogram is absolutely invaluable in ensuring a perfect exposure."
Q How has using a manual setting benefitted your photography?
"Shooting in manual gives you complete control. When lighting conditions are tricky, or you want a certain feel to the image (such as low or high key lighting), then this is the way to go. Fujifilm cameras make shooting manually a breeze. All of the main controls (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are laid out on the top plate or around the lens, so it’s incredibly easy to change the exposure and immediately see the result on the LCD screen or in the viewfinder. Of course, you can also check the live histogram for ultimate control of your exposure, ensuring that you retain detail in both the highlights shadows."
Q Was there ever a time when you used the automatic setting? If not, why were you never tempted by it?
"I don’t think I’ve ever used fully automatic, because then the camera is the one determining the exposure. There’s usually one element that requires management. Whether that’s aperture, which determines your depth-of-field, or shutter speed, which controls the appearance of movement in an image. However, the Program mode (P) can also be a good halfway house, as you have the ability to change the ISO and shutter speed/aperture combination very quickly, which is great for fast-moving situations."
Q What would be your camera EXIF data for a typical landscape?
"I’ll always try and shoot at the native ISO (the ISO where image quality is best). On Fujifilm cameras this is 200, so that’s always where I start out. I also shoot in RAW rather than JPEG, as this gives me a great quality file with lots more information recorded. My default aperture for landscapes is f/11 or f/8, as that’s typically the sharpest setting. However, sometimes I’ll work with wide apertures if I want to have a creative effect to produce some separation between my main focal point and my background."
Slow down your exposure
The beauty of a long exposure landscape can leave any photographer breathless. Rushing water is rendered into a milky texture, while fluffy clouds turn into dramatic streaks of greys and whites. Embracing long shutter speeds is a fantastic way to take your landscape photography to the next level and give it a pro edge.
If you’ve set your aperture to its widest, and your ISO to its lowest, and your shutter speed is still too fast, then don’t panic! Filters are an ingenious way to compensate for the bright setting you’re working in. Filters are dark pieces of glass that screw onto the end of your lens. They dramatically cut down the amount of light that hits the sensor, which means that your shutter speed has to be longer. You can buy filters of varying darkness, from a 6 stop (referring to how many stops of light you’ll lose) to a huge 15 stop filter.
However, if you’re keen to avoid extra kit weighing you down on your walk, then you may be interested in the Fujifilm X100F. Not only is it one of Fujifilm’s Premier Compact range, but it also comes complete with a built-in 3 stop ND filter. This means that there’s no need to stick an extra sheet of glass in front of your lens (which can compromise your image quality). Instead, simply use this handy feature and reap the benefits of the longer shutter speed required for your shot.
While a filter isn’t necessarily a must for long exposures, some form of a tripod is. Remember that if your shutter speed dips below 1/60sec, using it handheld will likely result in camera shake and unwanted blur. However, there are many types of tripods that you can use, depending on where you’re walking and what kind of shot you want. If you’re happy to carry something a bit heavier, a normal tripod is fantastic for being able to choose lots of different compositions. However, if you don’t mind having to work close to the ground, or relying on finding a wall, then why not use a beanbag or mini tripod. While small, these can be incredibly helpful when you don’t want to carry too much weight, but you want to be able to capture beautiful long exposures.
For more information about the X100F and other cameras from the X-Series range, please visit www.fujifilm-x.com.
Where: Padley Gorge, Peak District
Map and grid ref: OS Explorer OL1 and OL24, SK253793
Getting there: Padley Gorge lies between the village of Grindleford and the National Trust Longshaw estate, just outside the Sheffield city limits.
Why visit? The gorge is a magnificently tranquil place among much wilder country. Above it are the large Dark Peak uplands of Millstone Edge and Stanage Edge, but in Padley Gorge you can be enclosed by picturesque broadleaf woodland, with just the babbling Burbage Brook for company. At the bottom of the gorge is the portal of the Totley Rail Tunnel, which also looks good in photos.
Fujifilm expert: Chris Upton
Q When did you first discover long exposures?
"As a landscape photographer, introducing movement in my image for creative effect has been a favourite technique for many years. For example, shooting a stream between 0.5sec and 2secs gives a pleasing milky effect to the water. However, true long exposure photography, with shutter speeds from 30secs to several minutes, is a more recent technique. It’s usually achieved through the use of Neutral Density filters. The appearance of smooth water in an image really helps to separate objects. However, remember to take care with your compositions, as simply using a long exposure won’t compensate for a poorly framed photo. Instead, inadequacies will merely be highlighted."
Q How have long exposures improved your work?
"Long exposures bring a different dimension to photography, and, when combined with a great subject and beautiful light, the results can be stunning. I like to use this technique to bring some variety to my images. When done well, they can also bring great impact in black-and-white."
Q How do you achieve a long exposure when the light is too bright?
"The introduction of Neutral Density filters has opened up landscape photography at times of the day when we would otherwise be taking a break, or using the hours to explore a location for potential shots. A normal exposure of 1/30sec will translate into 30secs when using a 10 stop ND filter. If the light is still too bright, then you should reduce your ISO to its lowest setting and then select a smaller aperture, such as f/16 or even f/22. However, be aware the image quality can start to suffer at the extreme ends of the lens’ available apertures."
Q What’s your favourite subject to take a long exposure of?
"Although you can use an ND filter to introduce blur with water, clouds or other moving objects, my preference is definitely shooting long exposures of water. However, there’s a fantastic use for long shutter speeds that not many photographers take advantage of. If you’re at a busy landscape location and there’s a few people walking around in your shot, a long exposure can eliminate them from your final image. As long as they’re moving, they won’t be exposed long enough to register on your camera's sensor."
Capture shadow detail
Ever taken a quick shot of an incredible sunset on your phone, then looked at the image afterwards and thought “It looked so much better in real life”? Don’t lose heart, as this disappointment has nothing to do with your photographic skills. As mentioned earlier, camera sensors are simply unable to see things like our eyes do. One of the most important things that pro photographers will consider when buying a camera is how it handles areas of high contrast (i.e. a very bright sun and very dark shadows). Luckily, Fujifilm cameras offer their D-range function (short for dynamic range), which allows you to recover and retain more info in high contrast shots.
However, another way to remedy a tricky lighting situation is to use the bracketing and HDR techniques. Simply put, the way this works is that you take around three different exposures of the same landscape and then combine them in Photoshop to create one single perfectly balanced exposure.
The first step to this technique is to set your camera on a tripod. As you’ll be combining multiple different images, you won’t want your composition to change. Ensure that you’ve focused correctly and then switch your camera to manual focus, which will make sure it won’t change midway through your shots. Now that you’re ready to start using the bracketing technique, you’ll first need to set your camera to expose for the highlights, i.e. the bright parts of the image, such as the sky. You can do this by intentionally underexposing your shot by one or two stops (+1 or +2). Next, expose for the midtones by ensuring that the marker on your light meter is in the middle. Lastly, capture the shadow detail by overexposing your shot by one or two stops (-1 or -2). The great thing about this technique is that it’s a good insurance policy to ensure you’ve got a workable photo once you get home and load up your images to take a look. Now you may find that you can salvage the shadow or highlight detail in one of your images with some tweaking in post-production, but if you were shooting in a particularly high contrast environment, then HDR is the perfect way to rescue your photo. Standing for ‘High Dynamic Range’, the HDR technique is how you take your three bracketed shots and turn them into one balanced exposure.
We’re going to show you how to create an HDR image in Photoshop CC, which is more affordable than ever with monthly payments of £9.98. However, you can also download the free software Luminance HDR if you don’t have access to Photoshop.
To begin, open Photoshop and navigate to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro. This will then bring up a box with the option to ‘Browse’. Click on this and select the three images you shot using the bracketing technique earlier. Ensure that the ‘Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images’ box is ticked and then press ‘OK’. You may find that it takes a little while for Photoshop to merge your images, especially if you’re using an older computer. Once the program has finished it’ll present you with the amalgamated shot. However, it’ll also provide you with a series of options to increase the quality of your final image, including ‘Remove Ghosts’ (which will reduce any discrepancies in a moving subject, such as clouds), or the ‘Curve’ tab, which allows you to adjust the contrast. Play around with these options until you’re happy with the results and then click ‘OK’ at the bottom for your final HDR photo.
Fuji film Expert: Chris Upton
Q How often do you use HDR and bracketing?
"Bracketing a series of shots to capture a range of exposures, containing the highlight, mid-tone and shadow detail, has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Advances in post-processing software now makes it much easier to blend these exposures seamlessly together. While I try and get the exposure right in camera by using ND graduated filters (ND filters that graduate from dark glass to clear, which allows you to expose for a bright sky and dark foreground), sometimes it just isn’t possible. In these situations, I usually use the very good Extended Dynamic Range feature on my Fujifilm cameras, but I also occasionally resort to shooting a bracketed set of exposures as well."
Q What’s the most useful aspect of this technique?
"When the dynamic range in a scene is just too much to capture in one single frame, bracketing a series of shots enables me to capture all the tones required to produce a well-exposed image. This is especially useful if I don’t happen to have my filters with me, which I sometimes don’t if I’m just enjoying a nice country walk. Using this technique does require the photos to be shot one after the other, so a tripod is definitely recommended to get the best results."
Q What format do you shoot in?
"I shoot virtually all my images in the RAW format, because I want the best quality file possible (RAW files contain around 3x more information than JPEGs!). It also allows me to have maximum flexibility when post-processing my images. I do sometimes shoot JPEG by default when I choose a different format in the viewfinder. The Fujifilm XT-2 allows me to select Image Quality RAW and JPEG, and then Image Size, where I’ll then often choose 1:1. Although you can guess what a square crop will look like, having the ability to frame this accurately in this way really helps."
Q How does your Fujifilm camera make bracketing easy?
"The X-T2 Auto Exposure bracketing can shoot 3, 5, 7, or 9 frames with anything from 1/3 stop to 3 stops (of light) inbetween. My preference is usually for either 3 or 5 frames, which will mean one frame shot as the base exposure, then two frames 1 and 2 stops over-exposed, then two frames 1 and 2 stops under-exposed. You can choose the order in which they’re shot, and my personal preference is to shoot for highlights, mid-tones and then shadows."