On my USA national parks road trip I was outside shooting landscapes all day, every day. That’s all I did for two months. I had a decent DSLR camera, but I didn’t know how to use it to full advantage. I pointed, shot, and hoped. Many of my pictures turned out OK, but a lot were flawed and useless. Through trial and error I learned a few things to improve my landscape photography. I’m applying these rules here in the Philippines, and I’m no longer ending up with shots I can’t use. In descending order of importance, here are the rules I learned from experience:

#1 Shoot after sunrise, and before sunset. This is the single biggest thing you can do to improve landscape photography. Everything looks beautiful during the “golden hour” after sunrise and before sunset. This rule is so important that serious landscape photographs, the kind on postcards and in magazines, are only taken during this time. Being a landscape photographer means going to bed early and waking up before sunrise. I was usually in bed by 8 or 9 pm, and up at 5 or 6 am.

#2 Expose for the highlights. I learned this one the hard way. When shooting landscapes, the sky is often brighter than the land. I simply pointed at the land and pressed the shutter button. The problem with this is that the camera then automatically sets the exposure based on the dark land in the center of the frame, opening the aperture wide to let in more light. This is the right thing for the land, but it will let in too much light for the bright sky, resulting in a white, blown-out, overexposed sky. No amount of post-processing can recover this. The information is gone, and only a white sky remains. But underexposures can be adjusted with software. The details get a little technical, but basically point the camera at the sky to get the correct shutter speed, recompose the image, then take the picture. Learn how to use your camera’s histogram to verify that the image isn’t overexposed. Then fix underexposures in Lightroom.

The people going into the Fiery Furnace in Arches make the picture more interesting.
The people going into the Fiery Furnace in Arches make the picture more interesting.

#3 Use a tripod. Yes, it’s a pain, but you need a tripod to get maximum sharpness during the golden hour. Be sure to use a remote or set the timer too.

#4 Shoot RAW and use Lightroom. Editing photos doesn’t mean changing them. When you take pictures with a point-and-shoot camera, it is processing the image for you and creating jpegs. One of the advantages of a DSLR camera is that you can shoot unprocessed RAW images. These pictures come out looking ugly and flat, but you can process them yourself to create vivid jpegs. I’d prefer to take full control of the processing, rather than leave it up to my camera.

#5 Don’t use a flash. I get a little sad whenever I see somebody photographing a distant mountain with their flash on. A flash will only illuminate what’s directly in front of the camera. It will not illuminate the mountain, but it will illuminate whatever is nearby, such as trees or the ground. The result is not good. Turn off the flash!

#6 Use a lens hood and polarizing filter when it’s bright. Once the sun is up, it’s tough to take good photos. The bright sun will result in lens flair and a washed-out look. Using a lens hood will help with the flair, and a circular polarizing filter will help make the photo look less washed-out. It’s worth investing in a good polarizing filter so that it doesn’t degrade image quality.

My tent on BLM land outside of Canyonlands.
My tent on BLM land outside of Canyonlands.

#7 Include a human element. In processing hundreds of landscape images, I tend to get tired of looking at picture after picture of mountains or rocks. The ones that pique my interest have either a hiker or something man-made in them, such as a trail, road, or cabin. A human element makes the picture more personal and lends a sense of scale.

#8 Include something in the foreground. Photographing things like canyons and vast expanses of rock can be tough. There’s no obvious point to make the focus of the image, and the pictures end up looking boring. It helps when there is something nearby that can be used as the focus such as a distinctive tree or rock. Focus on this, then recompose with the landscape in the background.

#9 Make sure your lens is clean. I’ve spent hours in Lightroom manually cleaning up dust spots, which are very visible on blue skies. Carry a lens brush and cloth, and use them often.

#10 Make sure your camera is accessible. They say the best camera is the one you have, and if your big DSLR is in your pack, you won’t use it. Smartphones excel here. Mine was always easy to get to in my front pocket, and it took pretty good pictures. Conditions can be tough in the backcountry, with lots of moisture, sand, and other harsh elements, so invest in a decent waterproof case. For my big DSLR, I didn’t want mine dangling around my neck while scrambling over slickrock. A solution that worked for my was a digital holster by ThinkTank. My camera was always at my side, easily within reach.

Incorporating the road and my car into a picture in Capital Reef.
Incorporating the road and my car into a picture in Capital Reef.

I still have more to learn, but by applying these rules, I believe the photos I am taking now are better than the ones I’ve been posting here.]]>

I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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