Ten Things Every Landscape Photographer Learns the Hard Way

1. Show up an hour before sunrise/sunset

If, like me, you enjoy photographing the sunrise and sunset, then you’ll know that there is nothing worse than looking at a colourful sky out of the car window. Sure you could set the alarm clock to go off a bit later and time your arrival at your chosen location for 15 minutes before, but there will be many occasions when you’ll be cursing yourself for it. The bottom line is that the sky is often at its best during ‘first light’ – that moment when the angle of the sun’s rays to the horizon is such that the high clouds are picked out in all their glory. As the sun rises towards the horizon the light gets whiter and, of course, brighter, but not always more colourful. The same goes for sunset – get there at least an hour early! Which reminds me …

Walk With Me
I took this photo on the way to Chinamans Beach in Jervis Bay. Check out the light in the sky – this was a full hour before sunrise.

 

2. Don’t pack up too soon

This one still catches me out. You can be standing there half an hour after sunset thinking that the sky is all played out and so you collapse the tripod, stow the camera in your bag and head back to the car. Then as you’re driving down the road on your way home the sky suddenly comes to life as the fast receding sun picks out the high clouds. It’s gutting. So unless there’s nothing but a solid wall of dark cloud between you and our solar system’s star, wait it out.

3. Don’t be afraid to switch lenses

I’m about as far removed from a camera gear obsessive as it’s possible to get, but I always make sure I’ve got an alternative lens or two packed in the bag. My ‘go to’ lens is the Canon 10-22mm EF-S which I use for 90% of my shots, but if I’m not getting any keepers then I’ll often switch to my zoom and see what the scene looks like up close.  So while you’ll read plenty of advice about the right kind of lenses to use for landscape photography, that doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t mix it up. Quite often we become fixated with finding ‘the shot’ with the lens that happens to be on the camera at the time when switching out to something else could open up amazing new vistas. See also: lens-lock, constantly switching lenses in search of a winning combination.

This was a pretty ordinary sunset viewed through my super-wide angle 10-22mm lens. But when I switched to the Sigma 70-300mm zoom and zoomed right in on the horizon, I got a much nicer shot.
This was a pretty ordinary sunset viewed through my super-wide angle 10-22mm lens. But when I switched to the Sigma 70-300mm zoom and zoomed right in on the horizon, I got a much nicer shot.

4. Don’t stay glued to the same spot for an hour because you’ve found a sweet composition

After you’ve hunted around looking for a spot with a view you like and you’ve set up your tripod and lined up the shot and stuck an ND-Grad on the front and triple-checked you’re at hyper-focal distance – it’s very easy to remain in that spot for the duration. You’ll get a good shot in your spot, but you’ll also end up with a card full of photos of the exact same composition.  So mix it up a bit, move around, test out other spots – assuming you’re not at Mrs Macquaries Chair in Sydney (where there’s ever barely elbow room between photographers), you can always go back to your original spot if you don’t find anything better.

5. Keep a spare memory card in your wallet

You get up early, drive for hours, walk to an exotic location, set up your camera and then realise you’ve left your memory cards at home. It happens to photographers all the time, but generally speaking it’s such a lousy experience that it only has to happen once . I’ve been in this situation and it’s for this reason I always have a spare card in my wallet. I’ve never had to use it, but that’s probably because I know the spare is there and it serves as a subconscious reminder. See also: batteries, making sure they’re charged.

6. No shot is worth losing your gear over

Unless you’re so wealthy that the cost of replacing a DSLR and lens is chump-change to you, then you need to quickly assess the dangers in any given situation. Yes we should push the limits in search of a shot, but let’s be honest about it, this is landscape photography we’re talking about, not war reportage. You won’t miss out on a Pulitzer if you decide to retreat in the face of a  big wave or away from a crumbling ledge. There’s always another angle and it’s often better. Personally I’d rather look after my gear than go without it for a few months while the insurance claim’s sorted. Don’t be timid, but also, don’t be suicidal.

7. Enjoy taking trophy shots, but don’t rely on them

We’re all influenced by iconic photographs taken in famous locations and it’s perfectly cool to go to those same locations and to try and ‘put your own twist on it’. There are, after all, famous photographers based in cities who photograph the same locations week in and week out and they are always well received. However try not to rely on these locations as they lead to a kind of lazy photography where you get stuck in a bit of a rut. Look for new and interesting locations and one day you may produce a photo of a location that has everyone else playing catch up.

Why should you miss out on photographing iconic locations such as Sydney Harbour because they've been photographed before? I love photographing the harbour from the most cliched spot of all - Mrs Macquaires chair.
Why should you miss out on photographing iconic locations such as Sydney Harbour because they’ve been photographed before? I love photographing the harbour from the most cliched spot of all – Mrs Macquaires chair.

8. You can’t ‘save’ a photo by converting it to black and white

Fishermen always have a story about ‘the one that got away’ and photographers inevitably do too – that one time where you had the shot of the year lined up and for one reason or another, it just didn’t work. The light’s wrong, it’s a bit blurry, the composition’s out – there are many reasons why things sometimes fail to come together. Then later as you look at the photograph in Lightroom you have a lightbulb moment and flick the image into black and white. It’s always very transparent when a photographer’s done this, because it’s probably the only black and white image they’ll share during the whole year. So by all means shoot for black and white, but don’t use it as a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card for sub-standard shots. Chalk it up to experience and move on. See also: that one nice bit – cropping heavily in post.

9. Try to shelve the envy when looking at other photographers work

When I first started out, I used to get terribly worked up about the images produced by other photographers that were receiving lots of attention. I’d nitpick and find ‘flaws’ in the images and tell myself that I could take an equally good shots if I had that camera/that lens or was at that location or had that much spare time on my hands. Fortunately I woke up to myself pretty quickly and started enjoying other photographers work – let me tell you, it’s much nicer to be collegiate than adversarial. So someone took a great shot – be pleased for them – then go out and take an equally good one yourself.

After a frustrating period of dull sunsets, the sky gods smiled and sent a colourful one my way.
After a frustrating period of dull sunsets, the sky gods smiled and sent a colourful one my way.

10. You pay for the good ones with the bad ones

If you start getting wound up by the weather, then you’re never going to do well as a landscape photographer because this style of photography has as much to do with the missed opportunities as the awesome moments. I’ve had periods where the horizon’s been clouded over for two weeks straight – that’s two weeks of 5am starts and hardly a photo to show for any of it. I’ve had countless evenings, sunk up to my hips in river mud down at the mangroves, getting feasted on by sandflies and mossies with no decent shot at the end of it. I’ve watched endless sunset skies fail to fire. I’ve missed innumerable flocks of birds flying elegantly through the setting sun’s rays. All of the above only serves to make those moments when you do get the shot, all the sweeter. So suck it up, learn to cope with disappointing shoots and every time you get a bad one tell yourself that you’ve just bought and paid for another great one.

One Reply to “Ten Things Every Landscape Photographer Learns the Hard Way”

  1. Gday Andy, excellent advice, and I agree with every thing you said…. So suck it up, learn to cope with disappointing shoots and every time you get a bad one tell yourself that you’ve just bought and paid for another great one.
    cheers. gaz

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