I know that everyone has different ways of photographing, but I just thought I’d share my techniques for shooting coastal landscapes. I’m going to concentrate on sunrise and sunset, because it’s far and away the most interesting time(s) of the day and almost always produces the most dramatic looking photos.
So firstly – get there early. If you’re sat there in your house, looking out of the window and the sky’s starting to turn a dark gold and red colour – then you’ve missed it. By the time you get anywhere half decent to photograph, the light will have either diminished or gone. This means that there will be occasions when you’re standing there in some otherwise lovely spot, with your camera all ready to go, and fuck all happens. We’ve all been there, in fact it happens regularly, but there’s no escaping it. Just chalk it up to experience and hope that tomorrow’s sunrise/sunset is slightly more interesting. For the day will come when you’re stood there, equipment set-up, camera checked and operating, and an amazing view will reveal itself before your very eyes. And a happy smile will creep across your face and you’ll take some awesome photographs.
Bearing in mind that amazing views can reveal themselves at the most unexpected moments in time – always keep your camera equipment ready to go. I realise it’s not practical for most people to have it with them at all times (although I do) but at least make sure that your batteries are charged up, the memory card’s empty and in the camera and that all your lenses and filters are clean and ready to rock. Oh and, pro tip here, always keep a spare memory card in your car’s ash tray (assuming you don’t smoke!) – there will come a day when you thank the stars for it. I keep my camera in the car at all times and no harm has ever befallen it – it means that when I’m driving along and see that amazing view, I’m ready to capture it.
There are a few bits of kit that help to make good landscape photographs and principle amongst these is a tripod. There’s always a trade-off with a tripod and that is weight versus stability. I have a great little Manfroto tripod that’s light as anything, but that portability also means that in strong wind, it moves, which means I have to either wait for a lull in the wind or find somewhere out of the wind. I like the fact that it’s light and so often I’ll weight the tripod down through the centre column with my backpack or, if the wind’s very strong, rocks in a bag.
It’s always useful to scout out locations before you photograph them. It’s not such an issue for sunset shots, but certainly for sunrise you’ll be arriving in the dark and therefore need to know that a) the view’s worth it and b) exactly where you should stand. Take a few moments to look properly at the view – what’s in the background and what can you frame in the foreground to make the shot more interesting? Now you’ve had a look, have a proper look. Notice those electricity wires on the right of the frame, that house that spoils an otherwise awesome vista, the litter, the security light, the lights from the traffic on the road, that ugly tree? Sure you can remove most of those in Photoshop, but it’s always better to start with a good photo in the camera.
If you’ve got access to a wide angle lens for your camera, then great. I’m hoping to get a nice super wide any day now, but most of the photos in my collection were taken with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my Canon. To shoot panoramic photos I put the camera in portrait orientation and shoot five over-lapping shots pieced together in PT Gui Pro. I also use my 50mm lens a fair bit for five or six shoot panoramics.
In terms of metering, for many of my landscape shots I use evaluative metering mode. Evaluative mode is ideal for high contrast scenes like sunrise and sunset because there’s such a big different between the light and the shadows. Evaluative metering is also a great ’emergency’ mode since it will arrive at a good overall exposure quickly. Center-weighted average is also great, particularly for well lit objects and I regularly use this for the more colourful sunrise and sunset shots. Finally, there’s spot metering mode which I only use when some wildlife presents itself. If you’re shooting animals during a sunrise or sunset and leave metering to evaluative or center-weighted then the animals will undoubtedly appear as silhouettes. Spot metering ensures that the animal is correctly exposed – the surrounds if they are over or under-exposed can be easily fixed in post. With my ISO I tend to leave it on 100 all the time – occasionally I’ll bump it up to 200 or 400 if I need to capture some wildlife in challenging lighting conditions because this enables me to keep the exposure fast enough to freeze the critter.
When you start doing long exposures you will of course have to use a tripod. If you haven’t got a remote trigger then set the camera to a two second self-timer so that there’s no wobble when the photo’s exposed. There’s a bit of an art to timing photos with a two second self-timer because you need to anticipate what’s going to happen. Of course if you invest in a remote (they’re usually under $100) then you just point and click when required.
The danger when shooting with a tripod is that you plant your feet in one spot and never move. This will lead to a very dull selection of photos when you get home and import them, so remember to change your location regularly. Often you don’t have to physically move, but raise or lower the height on your tripod to get a different point of view. That said, I have a 20 shot rule for my photos, where I shoot 20 shots in one location and then move elsewhere. If you’re brave, get close up to the action. When I’m shooting at the beach or rock shelf I always wear Crocs and surf shorts so I can get up close and personal with the waves. No harm has befallen my kit so far but I have had a wave come up to waist height before, which was a bit dodgy. If you’re lucky enough to have a waterproof housing, then make the most of it, extreme close-ups of waves are great.
Finally, I always always always shoot in RAW mode. Memory cards are very cheap these days so it’s simply not a space issue. While RAW files require a bit of work on your part when you get home, the advantages are enormous. I once shot an entire card full of landscape photos with the white balance set to tungsten, but because I shot in RAW, all I had to do was set the white balance to daylight in Lightroom and all the photos were good to go. RAW also enables you to overcome challenging lighting conditions without having to resort to HDR because you can simply use adjustment layers in Photoshop or graduated filters in Lightroom. Also, as software like Photoshop continually improves, you’ll be able to revisit old RAW files and work some magic on them years from now.