Five Tips for Better Landscape Photographs

Leading Photo Tours and Workshops, I see a lot of good and bad techniques from my students. Over the years, I have noticed at least 5 common mistakes that beginning photographers make. We all make these mistakes when starting out, so if you're guilty of any of them (or all) don't feel bad. The trick to improving your craft is being aware of your successes and failures and learning from your mistakes and celebrating your successes. Below are 5 photography mistakes I see all the time and some thoughts on how to eliminate them and thus improve the quality of landscape images you produce.

Golden reflected light captured in the Virgin River Narrows.
Canyon Gold
Zion National PArk, Utah

Golden reflected light captured in the Virgin River Narrows. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Use A Sturdy Tripod

Having a sturdy tripod and head is crucial to capturing sharp landscape photographs. Often times we are dealing with conditions hell-bent on ruining or images. No matter what conditions you encounter having a sturdy tripod can be the difference between a successful image or a complete failure. Lightweight and cheap tripods are easy to carry and convenient for travel, but most are not stable enough to stabilize your gear. If your camera body and heaviest lens out weighs your tripod, then you can be certain that you will be dealing with vibration issues especially when shooting on uneven terrain, in streams or under windy conditions. When selecting a tripod, buy the sturdiest and lightest one you can afford. Take your photo gear into a pro camera shop and try out a few tripod models before purchasing one. Just as important as the legs you choose it is also important to choose a tripod head that will also support the weight of your gear and is easy to use. I recommend a ball head that can accommodate at least 25 pounds and has the ability to accept quick release plates for easily attaching your camera and lens.

Solid Ground, Solid Base

When setting up your tripod you will find that the majority of times you will be on uneven terrain. If you set up your tripod on loose terrain you can almost be guaranteed it will shift during exposure resulting in soft, out-of-focus images. Also if your tripod is not properly set, you run the risk of it tipping over and smashing your gear. Make sure all three legs are anchored on solid ground and make sure to level your tripod to avoid it from crashing to the ground.

Lock It Down

Once your tripod is set, check to make sure all the components are locked down. This includes the where the ball head connects to the tripod, the quick release plate and all leg locks. This only takes a few seconds and can make the difference between a soft image or even worse your camera taking a tumble.

A small waterfall in Glen Leigh captured with peak autumn color, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania.
Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

A small waterfall in Glen Leigh captured with peak autumn color, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Compose Images Hand Holding The Camera

As a species we humans are very lazy! One of the fastest ways to compose a truly static images is to keep your camera mounted to your tripod. With the camera mounted on the tripod you will be much less likely to change position and camera height. While teaching workshops and leading photo tours, I am always stressing the importance of removing the camera from the tripod and walking around with it looking for the very best angle and height from which to photograph the subject matter. No matter if you are shooting a grand landscape or macro portrait of a flower, camera position can make all the difference in the overall impact of the composition and the way the viewer reacts to the photograph.

Arch at sunset from Whitney Pocket, Nevada.
Hidden Gaetway
Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Arch at sunset from Whitney Pocket, Nevada. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Once You've Found It, Refine It

Once you find that perfect angle, now it's time to bring in the tripod and set up the shot. I use Live View once the camera is mounted on the tripod to refine my composition, set focus/Depth-of-Field and check the exposure before tripping the shutter. Once in Live View or looking through the view finder, critically evaluate the composition looking for shapes, lines and pattern repetition that drive a graphic image. Further refine the camera position,height of the tripod and zoom the lens in and out until you have perfectly composed the image. Before tripping the shutter, scan the edges of the frame making sure that you have eliminated any distracting elements that can ruin your perfect image.

The skies above Kirkjufell (Church Mountain) erupted in a fiery display on this July evening in Iceland. Available Print Sizes...
Midnight Light

The skies above Kirkjufell (Church Mountain) erupted in a fiery display on this July evening in Iceland.

Available Print Sizes: 12x18, 16x24, 20x30, 24x36, 30x45, 40x60
Limited Edition
: 100 - Artist Proof: 5

Field Notes
: Nikon D800

Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Go Back, Often

The first time visiting a location usually doesn't yield the best images. Visiting a location time and time again allows you to get into a rhythm with the landscape and continuously refine the composition and your vision. The best landscape images are a combination of a great composition in conjunction with great light. Great light doesn't happen all that often and there have been certain locations that I have continued to visit and will continue to visit for years to come just waiting for that rare chance to capture and image of the place in amazing light.

The image above from Triple Falls and Kirjufell Mountain in Iceland illustrates the point of returning over and over again to the same locations. Making a trip to shoot this location for me requires a lot of money and time which is why I made three attempts to capture this shot under the best light possible while in iceland last summer. Once I found my composition, I returned on three occasions until I got the best light possible. Three trips may sound like a lot, but in reality it is not. I was lucky to capture such a unique display of light in a such short period of time. There have been locations that I've visited dozens of time and still have not come away with the image I am looking for. There is absolutely no substitute for hard work and persistence in this job!

Swirling autumn leaves in the world famous Subway Slot Canyon.
Swirling Subway
Zion National Park, Utah

Swirling autumn leaves in the world famous Subway Slot Canyon. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Stay In Shape & Get Off The Beaten Path

If you want to get off the beaten path and photograph locations that are unique, you must be willing to make a commitment to get away from the roadside pullouts and use your legs (assuming you have a good working pair). When not in the field shooting, I stay in shape by eating right and riding my bike at least four times a week. While out on assignment, no matter if I am tired or sick, I make a point to hit the trail in search of new locations and exciting images. This allows me to visit areas that many other photographers are either not willing to go or not prepared to visit. If you are uncomfortable on the trail alone, consider bringing a friend along to accompany you on your hikes.

Always make sure you are up to the task before heading out, making sure to evaluate your physical and mental condition in an honest way. Bring along power snacks that keep you energized and plenty of water to stay hydrated for the day. It is also good practice to let at least two people know your plans, route and what time to expect you back or receive a phone call. If something goes wrong and nobody knows where you are, your chances of surviving a bad situation are greatly diminished. Always carry the appropriate maps, compass and GPS. Know how to use them and they could save your life!

Lightning over the Badlands at sunset during a passing summer thunderstorm.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Lightning over the Badlands at sunset during a passing summer thunderstorm. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Reduce Vibrations

I see it all the time. Students are constantly tripping their camera shutters while holding onto the camera or tripod. This is the sure-fire fastest way to coming away with soft and unusable images from your adventures in the wilds. I recommend always using a remote release or at least using the self timer in your camera when shooting. Also make sure not to touch the camera or tripod during the exposure as this can ruin your shots.

Use Mirror Lock-Up

If your shooting out of Live View there is no need to use the mirror lock-up function on your camera (the mirror already is locked up). But if you are shooting the traditional way, make sure to use mirror lock-up anytime your shutter speed is between 1 second and 1/30 of a second.

Beware Long Lens Vibrations

When shooting with a telephoto lens vibrations can become a big problem. First of all, if your lens has a tripod collar and mounting plate, use it! This alone will help to reduce camera vibrations dramatically. Make sure your tripod head is tightly locked down and turn off vibration reduction when mounted on a tripod. If you are hand holding the camera (not recommended for most situations), make sure that vibration reduction is on and try to shoot with a shutter speed that is equivalent to the lenses focal length. For instance. if you are shooting with a 200mm lens try to have your shutter speed set to at least 1/250th of a second.