Unfortunately, there is no simple, quick answer to this question. Photography – especially landscape photography – is complicated. Landscape photography involves two main areas: the technical side and the creative/workflow side. Both a mastery of technical skills AND a creative/fine-tuned workflow are necessary to capture breath-taking photographs.
Because so many factors come into play when one is trying to capture an incredible landscape photo, we recommend that beginner landscape photographers master technical skills first.
When I mention technical skills, I’m referring to such things as focus, shutter speed… aperture… ISO… how to set up your camera… how to post-process your photos. Having a mastery of technical skills means having a deep understanding of how your camera works, how post-processing works, and how these two are intricately tied together.
So what happens if you don’t have the technical side of photography nailed down? Let’s compare the two photos below of Marymere Falls in Washington.
The above photo was taken in 2001. My technical skills as a beginner at that time were not fine-tuned. As you can see, the image has many under exposed areas. The water appears blown out – too bright with no visible details. I didn’t know how to properly set the exposure. Also, the foreground is blurry. I didn’t know how or where to focus to get a sharp photo. Although I could see the scene with my own eyes and knew what image I wanted to capture, I didn’t have the technical skills to shoot it accurately.
In addition, the photo was processed incorrectly. I shot this as a JPEG photo. At the time, there wasn’t a great deal of knowledge about RAW versus JPEGs so I didn’t understand the benefits of using RAW files. I assumed JPEG was good enough.
My lack of technical knowledge as a beginner landscape photographer created an unappealing photograph that did not do justice to the beautiful scene.
Now look at the photo I shot of Marymere Falls in 2010. The composition is almost identical. But notice the rich colors and the image’s details. This photograph was exposed properly… the dark areas have appropriate color detail and tonal range… the waterfall now has smooth flowing water lines rather than the previous blown out look. The photograph was also processed nicely. I understood and was able to successfully use bracketing and combined multiple photos in post-processing. Between 2001 and 2010, I drastically improved my technical skills. I acquired the ability to capture a complicated scene with everything properly exposed and processed. The more recent photo allows people to look at the image and almost feel they’re looking out a window at the real view.
With a mastery of the technical skills, people often assume they can now go out and capture any photo they want. Remember… technical skills are only half of the landscape photography story.
Workflow & Creativity
Ok… so if as you feel you’ve mastered your technical skills. This doesn’t mean that you can just rush out and capture a landscape photos that makes people say “Wow!” Capturing the vision you have in your mind takes more than photographic skills.
Landscape photography is tricky. The light and environmental conditions you encounter aren’t predictable. Even with the best technical skills, beginners landscape photographer will often face challenging situations that they have not seen before. For example, Varina and I went to Colorado to shoot Maroon Lake in autumn of 2012. The recent drought had devastated the area and the lake was more like a mud puddle. The beaver lodge was exposed and the beavers had moved out. Instead of a gorgeous pristine lake, we had an ugly mud pit. In a situation like this, your creativity and workflow must come into play. We were forced to shoot photos that were far different than what we had expected.
What’s the difference between technical skills and workflow?
Take a look at the following two photos of sea anemones from Olympic National Park in Washington state.
The one shot in 2003 is technically a very good photo that is typical of a beginner landscape photographer. It’s properly exposed and well-processed. The colors are natural and the image has good tonal range. Everything is very sharp. I was able to capture the sea anemones’ colors underwater by using a circular polarizer. I had the technical skills to see a scene and then capture it the way I had envisioned it. The photo accurately reflected the reality of the scene.
But, despite the ‘on-point’ technical aspects of the photo, it simply doesn’t make someone say “Wow!”
To do THAT, I had to think more outside the box. For the next photo, I focused more on the sea anemones themselves rather than their environment. The tide was low enough to allow me to get close; I used a bottle of sea water poured to one side to wash the sand away. In regards to timing, I had to choose between late in the day or early in the morning to ensure the right light for capturing the brilliant colors. I chose to go in the evening (during low tide). The direct evening sun light lit up the anemones. By placing the sun behind me, I was able to bounce the reflected light away from the camera eliminating a need to use the circular polarizer. Because a circular polarizer slows down shutter speed and I needed a fast shutter speed to ‘freeze’ the movement of the tentacles, I had to rely on this perfect light (rather than the polarizer) to capture the anemones’ brilliant colors.
As you can see from the examples above, getting it right in camera is about more than just knowing how your camera works. It’s about putting yourself in the right place at the right time and then using local knowledge, the right equipment, key composition strategies, essential camera skills, and a good dose of creativity to overcome the ever-changing conditions of nature. This is exactly what our upcoming Getting it Right in Camera course is all about. Filmed in diverse terrains of Iceland and Hawaii, this course shows beginner landscape photographer how to approach landscape photography as a workflow to get it right in-camera every time.
Furthermore, when you combine this course with Anne McKinnells’ Practical Lightroom Course Vol-2, you will get a firsthand look at how a professional exposes and edits an image from start to finish.