Digital Landscape Tips

Before Leaving Home  •  On The Road  •  Get The Shot Without Getting Shot  •  Overcome The Conditions • Tripods • Filters & Digital

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Click To Enlarge Niagara Falls panorama shot with a Canon EF 100-400mm IS lens and a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

For this year’s OP Landscape Annual, I’m offering you the tips and techniques I teach and use in the field on a regular basis, updated for digital photography. Get ready to photograph those fall colors and winter scenes now!

Before Leaving Home
Luck shines on the prepared photographer. In the past, I often was disappointed when I encountered great photo ops and was forced to take mundane images because I didn’t have the right tool with me. Today, I go prepared. I like landscapes in the extreme, where wide-angles and telephotos dominate. So if I’m looking for landscapes, in addition to the basic 17-40mm and 24-105mm zooms, I’ll usually take along my 180-degree fish-eye, 100-400mm zoom and 500mm with 1.4x and 2x extenders. The capabilities in my bag then range from 16mm wide-angle to 1000mm telephoto.

Why do I need such a wide range of lenses for landscapes? They allow me to choose from among a diverse array of approaches and interpretations. At 1000mm, I can pull a distant landscape into my camera, using a technique I call “extraction.” The telephoto lenses are my tools of choice for undistorted panoramas. The extreme wide-angles offer a completely different perspective and unique treatments of the sun.

I also carry filters (more on that later), a Lightning Trigger (if there’s any chance of thunderstorms), an electronic cable release that also allows time lapse, a two-axis bubble level to help with panoramas and the required batteries for all the accessories. I often mention batteries in this column because they’re essential, and I often encounter photographers who aren’t prepared. Always take more than you think you’ll need!

The image here shows a combination of lens and filter techniques needed to obtain the photo one might have had in mind before arriving at a landscape location. Knowing I’d be at Niagara Falls, I took along the Canon 100-400mm zoom and a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. The panorama is a composite of five images taken at a focal length of 135mm and an exposure of 1⁄2 sec. at ƒ/16 (ISO 100) using the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

On The Road
Here’s a little preaching about road safety. I know you want that photo, but it’s not all about you! The others out there either want to take a photo, too, or just want to get home in one piece. Photographers can be annoying or attractive nuisances. We’re always looking for the perfect vantage point and we drive like hell trying to beat the sun, or we lollygag along a busy highway holding up traffic while we look for a turnout. Give yourself enough time to find the location at the optimum time of day. If you set up beside the roadway, get your vehicle out of traffic and understand that you’ll distract or attract other drivers who will be looking to see what you’re shooting or what you’re shooting it with!

Get The Shot Without Getting Shot
One of the major problems confronting outdoor photographers today is access. Property owners are concerned about liability and may have been burned by the poor behavior of photographers who have gone before us. The easiest answer is to shoot on public lands where a fee is paid and you’re free to roam, but you don’t want to be limited to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley. Photographing on private land can yield unique images if you do the groundwork (pun intended).

My colleague Darrell Gulin often photographs in the Palouse region of eastern Washington State, and he has taken the time to drive up to the farmhouses of the ranches and meet the landowners to get permission to be on their land and to get a property release because he sells images that might show recognizable features of their land. He later follows through and sends them a nice print. He’s impeccably polite and considerate, and probably the most welcomed photographer in the area. Neighbors tell neighbors, and the extra work is worthwhile. His attention to gaining authorized access results in spectacular images.

Another pair of colleagues, Bob Rozinski and Wendy Shattil, have a different approach. They work as photographers with land conservancy groups and wildlife organizations that may be in negotiations with landowners to set up land or wildlife easements or with a biologist doing research on a specific subject. They accompany the organization or researcher to document the natural holdings of an area and, in the process, make connections with the individual owners. By following important courtesy protocols, they’re often invited back, and they also follow through with complimentary prints.

As a side note, be careful when working with others to ascertain beforehand who owns the rights to the images that will be taken. Your donated work can be lost to you or improperly used when leadership of an organization invariably changes and promises are forgotten. Written contracts can be important. The bottom line is to respect private property and take extra time to get to know an area and be known by its owners. Work toward results that have mutual benefit, and permanently discard the attitude that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

Overcome The Conditions
Seldom will the light be exactly what you want. Contrast, or the lack of it, often is the problem. With digital capture and optimization in the computer, the good news is we have many tools to overcome problems in the field that would have been insurmountable in the days of film. The bad news is the tools can make photographers lazy, thinking, “I’ll just get it into the camera and then ‘save’ it in Photoshop.” Wrong! Before capture, visualize the best photographic result. Identify the obstacles to that outcome and address them with thoughtful decisions about exposure, composition and the possible need for multiple captures. Ansel Adams was a proponent of previsualization as it pertained to what he knew he could do in the darkroom. In film days, most of us didn’t do our own processing and printing, but now we have that control from capture to print.

The one tool that will improve your photography the most, after good optics, is a good tripod. A quality tripod consists of two parts. The first is the base or legs. These need to be stiff and potentially have mass. The rigid part comes with quality construction and good joints. My favorite bases are the Gitzo units with their “G Lock” leg extensions. The mass part of the equation can come from a camera bag or other weighty item hanging from the tripod’s center post. Or carry a bag that holds water, rocks or soil and hang it from a tripod hook. In this way, the mass can be added and discarded at the photo site. The second part is the tripod head. I tend toward a ballhead, as do most pros. The advantage of a good ballhead is that you loosen one knob, position the camera and then lock it down. It’s quick and positive. Add a quick release, and you can change cameras and lenses in a hurry. Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff are two of the best companies furnishing tripods and ballheads. There are others, but these are two I have experience with. Without a good tripod system, you can’t get sharp images and you won’t be able to accomplish many of the techniques that solve landscape photographic problems in the digital age.

Filters & Digital
I don’t use as many filters now as I did with film, but I do use some. Polarizing filters still help the original capture and make it easier to get saturated skies later. They also clarify a scene when reflections and moisture are reflecting into the lens. Hold up the polarizer to your eye and rotate it to see if there’s a desirable effect. Don’t forget the special effects of a Gold-N-Blue polarizer (Singh-Ray).

Neutral-density filters can help with the creation of special effects. I use them to enable long exposures in daylight. An ND filter can slow down water for a flowing effect or make cars and people move within the exposure and then disappear.

A protection filter still has its place, but make sure it’s clean and of good quality. A cheap filter can steal all the quality from your expensive lens. Remember, every piece of glass added to the front of a lens compromises its quality to a degree.

Now, Get Out There!
The most important thing is to be there, but having your equipment and skills ready for landscapes maximizes creative production and minimizes frustration and mishaps. This is hardly a full list of everything you could have or do to facilitate your photography, but I hope you find these tips useful in your pursuit of the “grandscape” in the coming seasons.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.