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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 4 - learn how to use your camera

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Welcome to the third installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.

Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:

The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the key aspects of your camera, and how to use it, that you will need to master for great landscape photography.

Where landscape photography gets technical!

There's no avoiding it, if you want to take great landscape photos, you're going to need to know how to use your camera properly. If you're in a great location, if the light is great, and if you have mastered composition you *might* get a great shot, but generally you will be severely limiting your chances if you don't know how to unlock the full power of your camera.

Cameras are complicated things, with lots of buttons and potentially hundreds of menu items, so they can seem a bit overwhelming at first. The good news is that for landscape photography, there is a much smaller number of buttons, menu items as well as a small number of camera techniques that you need to master to start taking great landscape photos.

The not such good news, is that there is still lots to learn; this topic takes up a significant part of my landscape photography 1-2-1 masterclasses and weekend photography workshops, so I'm not going to be able to teach you everything in this brief blog. What I will do however is to highlight some of the key areas that you will need to learn, and give a few pointers to other blog articles that I've written that give additional details.

As a self taught photographer, I taught myself all of this, but it did take a very long time, and some of it had me confused for long periods of time! If you want to get a jump start on your landscape photography journey, I would highly recommend that you attend a course from a reputable trainer (obviously you can take training from me, but other trainers are available!). In the early days of your photography journey, spending money on training will be far more effective in improving your photography, than spending money on camera kit! I often have clients come to me who openly admit that they have 'all the gear and no idea!'

The basics

1. Learn to leave full auto mode behind

The key to unlocking the potential creativity of your camera is to learn how to leave auto mode behind. There's nothing wrong with using auto mode at a party or family gathering, but if you start getting into landscape photography you'll soon find that it severely limits what you can achieve. Dealing with difficult light, and slowing the motion of water are two of the staples of landscape photography, and neither of these can be achieved on full auto mode. Learning to use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes is the key to unlock your creativity, and one of the fundamental ingredients of great landscape photos.

For an explanation of some of the other modes on your mode dial and what they do, please take a look at my blog on getting off auto

A camera mode dial
Camera mode dial

2. Learn how to play with motion and depth of field

One of the main benefits of getting off auto mode is that it allows you to unlock two of the key creative elements of your camera; the ability to freeze or blur motion (through shutter speed) and the use aperture to alter depth of field.

In landscapes, blurring of water can significantly change the appearance of a photo, creating beautiful milky waterfalls or flattening all the waves in a seascape to produce a gorgeous flat and creamy sea surface, or capturing the light trails of passing cars. Once you've learned how to use Shutter Priority or Manual modes to manage your shutter speed, and mastered the use of ND filters to slow your shutter speed further if needed, you're only a shutter press away from producing beautiful artistic landscape photos such as the first two below. See this blog article on what ND filters and how to use them

The other creative element that is unlocked by using Aperture Priority or Manual modes is the creative potential of depth of field. Using aperture you can manage the amount of the photo that is in the zone of focus; either using small apertures so that the whole of your landscape photo is in focus, or using a large aperture to throw much of the photo out of focus which can help to emphasise your main subject. A large aperture was used to create the blurred bluebell effect in the foreground of the third photo below.

A long exposure reflection photo of the Kennick reservoir, Dartmoor on a cloudy day, by Dartmoor photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Kennick Reservoir, Dartmoor

A long exposure photo showing car light trails passing the Warren House Inn Dartmoor, by Dartmoor photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Car light trails passing the Warren House Inn, Dartmoor

A photo of bluebells above Colmer's Hill, Dorset at sunset, by Dorset photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Bluebells above Colmer's Hill, Dorset

3. Learn how to focus effectively

There is little point in finding a great location and great light, and composing a great photo, then ending up with a blurred photo because you haven't focussed properly! Modern cameras have amazing focus systems, as long as you know how to use them properly. A key skill in landscape photography is learning how to move away from letting the camera decide where to focus, and taking more control using your camera's focus point and area selection settings. These were covered in more detail in this blog on Focus points and focus areas

4. Switch to shooting in RAW

If you've taken a look at my full list of ten ingredients for great landscape photos, you will see that later on we will be discussing the importance of post processing. Without going into huge detail, suffice it to say that once you start post processing you will appreciate having all of the data captured by your camera available to you (in the RAW file) not the Jpeg version where your camera has already thrown away lots of information. This topic is covered in more detail in my blog post should i shoot in raw or jpeg?

Advanced techniques

As well as the basics above, there are also a handful of camera techniques that you will need to learn to handle specific situations. Below is a brief introduction to a couple of these, which will be expanded upon in future blog posts.

1. Learn to bracket for high contrast scenes

Are eyes are amazing; we can look out of a window and see all of the detail in the bright outside world, as well as all of the details in the darker interior of the room. Although modern sensors are fantastic, they are still nowhere near as good are your eyesight, and struggle to capture scenes with large dynamic range (very bright to very dark) particularly well. So, one technique that is essential to learn is how to take multiple photos with different exposures ('brackets') which can then be merged in software to produce a photo which has a 'high dynamic range'. This is a technique I use often when shooting sunrises and sunsets, so that I can produce images which capture all of the detail in the bright sky, as well as all of the detail in the foreground shadows. An example of a photo which has been created in this way is shown below. You might be interested to know that when you point many camera phones at a high dynamic range scene such as a sunset, your phone will use exactly this technique and just show you the resultant high dynamic range result!

A landscape photo of Dartmoor, with the sun rising over a tor, by Dartmoor photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
The rising sun over a Dartmoor Tor

2. Learn how to focus stack

A small aperture (large 'f number') gives you a deep depth of field, meaning that most of the scene is acceptably in focus, all the way from the foreground to the far distance. However, depth of field is not infinite, and if you have a scene where you want some foreground items close to you (e.g. some flowers) to be in focus, AND you want the far distance of the photo to be in focus too, there is no way of doing this in one shot. The solution is to 'focus stack'. Essentially you take one photo where you focus on the foreground items that are close to you, another where you focus on the middle distance, and a third where you focus on the far distance. These can then be combined in software to create a photo where everything is in focus. This was the technique used to create the photo below, where the sea pinks very close to the camera are in focus, and the hills in the distance are also in focus. This was not possible in a single shot.

Want a learn more about my ten ingredients?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training classes consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to the South West and looking for Devon photography training , check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses - either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

A student learning photography in a Devon bluebell wood, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Just one of the beautiful locations we will visit

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