Patrick Smith Photography - Methods
Things to Remember when Making a Landscape Photograph
There are many factors that go into creating a high quality landscape image. Being in the right place at the right time,
exposing the image accurately, and processing the image correctly, are three of the most important factors. Then look at
your work with a critical eye.
Being in the right place at the right time and self-critique:
Light: This is the most important factor in determining how a landscape image will look. Under harsh midday light you
can be at a spectacular place like Yosemite and still take shots that look bad, or at least rather plain. But under light at
the start or end of the day, even a common scene can look good. The hour after sunrise, or the hour before sunset are
usually the best times to do photography. The light has a warmer feel and is more even with less contrast.
This view of Yosemite Valley taken at this spot is spectacular, but it was taken in the middle of the
day so it looks just like any common photo. Even though I used an ND grad filter to darken the
clouds so that they were not so bright, there is still too much contrast. As a result the image is
very stark and cool. So this image does not really feel good on the eyes. Also, I should have used
a weaker grad filter, as the top of the sky is too dark, and bringing it back in Photoshop yields
artificial looking results.
This view of Tuolumne Meadows at 8,000 feet elevation was taken just 5 minutes before the
sunset. Even though the sky is blue, the light is lower and warmer. There is less contrast and the
colors are richer and more inviting. Though this view is not as spectacular as the Yosemite Valley, it
is a better image.
Weather: Clear skies look good to our eyes, but they produce too much contrast in a photograph.
So a photo taken on a clear day will either be overexposed in the bright areas, too dark in the
shadows, or both. A low sun angle helps a lot during clear days. So partly or mostly cloudy days
are often better, as they produce more even light. One exception however, is for waterfalls and
rivers. A completely dull and flat sky often produces the most even light for photographing them.
Also, a landscape photograph should have interest everywhere in the frame. A dramatic sky full of
interesting cloud cover is far more interesting than flat blue skies. Sometimes the worst weather
days produce the best photographs. Dramatic rain clouds and fog can add that missing ingredient
to what might be an average scene. The interaction of sun and cloud on the landscape can help to
focus attention on a subject. One reason that there are so few great landscape photographs out
of the millions taken each year is that the good ones are often taken when everybody is sleeping
or hiding from the bad weather.
In this view from Treasure Island taken before sunset, the clear sky is empty and rather boring. It
has also created too much contrast, so detail is missing or limited on the buildings and other
areas. I will come back to get an improved shot when conditions are better and I'll include more
In this view, taken at sunrise (maybe 50 feet from the previous view) there is much more interest
in the sky and plenty of detail everywhere. This is due to clouds reflecting light into areas that
might be darker on a clear day. I liked the sky so much that I split the composition at 50/50 land
Focal Point: It is good to have a focal point in your image. It can be a path through a field leading
to a bridge, a bench with a view of the ocean, people on a beach at sunset, or something similar.
Without a subject, people will look at the image and wonder what it is all about. Or worse yet,
they may never take more than a passing glance at it. An image without a strong focal point will
not be noticed across a room, nor on a web page full of thumbnail images.
While I like the warm glow of this photo, it does not have a strong focal point. I wanted to have
the tree on the right as the focal point. However, it does not stand out well when it's viewed in a
small thumbnail or at a distance.
This photo stands out well, whether it is viewed across the room or in a thumbnail. People will look
because the subject is strong. I am going back to retake this photo under similar fog conditions.
While I like the reflection of the underside of the tower, it feels a little empty. Even if a viewer does
not like it, he or she will at least take a glance.
Composition: Once you have a focal point in mind, it is important to arrange it in such a way that it
fits well into the frame. If there is more interest on the landscape than the sky, give it about 2/3 of
the frame. If the sky is the center of attention, give it more than half of the frame. If a foreground
rock is an important focal point, put it near the lower right or left corner, but don’t let it get too
close to the edge of the image. Make sure that small details on the edge of the frame such as
trees or animals are not cut off. Walk around with the camera and arrange things in the frame as
though you are painting a picture. A small move can result in a completely different image.
In this photo I tried to get a log into the foreground but it did not quite fit in. As a result, it is
chopped off and the foreground looks unfinished. I was up against a rock and could not back up.
In this case, it was best to try another composition. Also, there is no interest in the sky, so I did
not include much of it, which makes it look unbalanced.
In this view of Stinson beach from Mt. Tamalpais, the foreground rock easily fits in and does not
block the view. The storm was approaching rapidly, and it created a lot of interest in the sky.
Therefore I devoted at least 1/3 of the frame to it. There was so much interest in the land that it
still won out over the sky, so it got 2/3 of the frame. It would be nice to have more direct light on
the land, so I'll be going back here again.
Foreground: It is easy to see something like a famous bridge or a scenic mountain and just take a
shot of it. It is better, however to look around for foreground interest in order to place the focal
point into perspective. Get some rock, grass, waves, sand or other elements in the foreground so
that the viewer is in the scene with you. Foreground is very important and gives depth to most
I saw some nice light on a mountain on Kauai's north shore just as the sun rose. It would be easy
to just shoot a close-up of the mountain like this. In this view, there is no foreground, just the
mountain. You can't even tell what is in front of it. Is it a field? A lava bed? The beach? Probably,
but the viewer is left guessing.
Here is the entire frame. It is really composed to be a walk along the beach at sunrise while
walking away from the sun. The beach leads the eye right along towards the mountain in the
distance. This one is in the Hawaii - Kauai gallery.
Remove distractions: Since you will often include foreground interest, don’t forget to walk around
and clean it up. Remove unwanted branches, rocks, grass or other distractions before you take the
shot. It is easier to do it for real than in PhotoShop. And don’t let your footprints be visible. If you
can’t clean up a foreground, try to move around until the distractions are not in the way of a clean
It looked like it might be the best sunset of the year illuminating Mt. Diablo. So I headed up to the
hill to my pre-planned site about 30 minutes before sunset. The clouds were dramatic so I set up
right where I had wanted to be and took a shot. There was dry grass all over the nice looking
foreground rocks, and there were houses in the lower right of the frame that were definitely
distracting from the light on the mountain.
So I cleaned up the grass and recomposed to exclude the houses. Then I waited for about 15
minutes until the light got lower and warmer. A hole opened in the clouds and Mt. Diablo was in
the spotlight. See how much warmer this light is when compared to the preceeding photo? 15
minutes can make a big difference! This photo is in the Contra Costa gallery.
Research: Plan out your images in advance. Always be on the lookout for a good shot, even if it is
not currently the right time of day or even the right time of year. You may pass a spot on a sunny
summer afternoon and think to yourself, ‘when the rainy season comes and the grass is green,
this will make a good shot at sunrise.’ Or you may be out at the beach at high tide on a sunny day
and realize that a particular scene will make a great image at sunset on a partly cloudy day when
there is a low tide. Make notes about what images you want to get, and plan on being there when
the time is right. Look at weather reports, tide tables, satellite movies and especially right out the
window to determine when you should get the shot you want.
I have been to this location above Stinson Beach 5 times now, trying to be there at the right time.
It is difficult to get to this spot, but I keep returning because I like this composition. I like the
sweeping curve of the beach and the expanse of the open ocean. But I want the image taken
when there is good light on the ocean and land. I was hoping that conditions would improve, but
they never did. So I took a few shots and enjoyed the view. On the way back home, I realized that
further down the coast some holes had opened up in the cloud deck. I missed what might have
been a good shot. That is how it goes sometimes. But it is still great to get out for a nice hike in
such grand scenery.
Observation: After you take each shot, look closely at the scene your camera just photographed.
Compare it to what you see on the screen on the back of your camera. Look at the exposure curve
if you use digital. Remember what the scene looks like so that you can accurately restore the
photo to how you saw it with your eyes.
When I took the image of Stinson Beach (above), the sky was ominous and it had a slight blueish
cast to it. When I got home and looked at this image on my computer, it had an extremely strong
blue cast. I de-saturated the blues only, but even then this image had more blue than what I saw.
When I tried to remove more blue, the image started looking artificial. I will have to go back and
take this photo again. I want the photograph and print to appear as I saw it with my own eyes.
Location: Don’t settle for simply pulling off the road and setting up your tripod. The best shots are
rarely seen from the side of the road. Considerable hiking or climbing may be required to get into
the best locations. Even if there is a good vista point, you will be getting the same shot as
everybody else. You often see this phenomenon at the Golden Gate Bridge and other famous
places. Often, a dozen tripods will be placed in nearly the exact same spot at the same time just a
few steps from the roadway. Try to get a unique perspecive on famous places!
I visited Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park south of Carmel, in order to plan out a composition that I'll
do later. It is difficult to get a truly unique photograph of this place because it is so commonly
photographed and nobody is allowed down onto the beach. Visitors must stay on just a few paved
pathways. This is a spectacular view, but there is too much contrast and the image is hard on the
eyes. This is not the composition I have in mind, but I took the shot in order to keep the place
fresh in my mind. The best time to photograph this beach will occur in December and January when
the sun sets behind this beach and there is a better chance of clouds to fill the sky.
Patience: In order to get the shot you want, you may have to wait for hours or even years. Often
you may get to your location and realize that the conditions are not right. Often, waiting patiently
will bring great results. However, waiting can be risky. If you wait too long and nothing happens,
you may miss taking a great photograph somewhere else. You will often have to go back to the
same location many times in order to get the shot you want. So don’t give up!
The marine layer was extremely shallow, so I headed over to the bridge. I pulled off the road
where no less than 15 photographers were standing around with their tripods. They had large
lenses, and lots of gear. A few even had large format view cameras. They were all waiting for that
perfect moment. There were also dozens of tourists taking snapshots. In the photo above, they
were all a few hundred feet below the end of the path on the right side of the frame. But there
was a fog bank sitting right on top of them. I wanted a different perspective than the crowd. So I
climbed up the crumbly cliff and went to this spot. I have several spots in mind when I come here,
where photographers do not go. On this occasion, I was here for an hour and not a single person
passed by. During the day, many hikers use this trail, but not many photographers. After I waited
for the sun to set and for the fog to flow in just the right way, I took my shots and headed down
the hill. When I got back to the road, the photpgraphers were all milling about in the dense fog
waiting for something to happen. Another nice advantage to hiking up the hill is that it was calm
and warm where I took this shot. But it was cold, windy and damp where the road was.
Exposing the Image
Equipment: Conditions can change quite rapidly while you are photographing the landscape.
Clouds can come and go, resulting in radically different light levels. Waves break quickly and the
wind can rise quickly out of calm conditions. So it is important to be able to change the camera
settings quickly and accurately so as to not miss that perfect moment.
A good camera and lens is important when you want to create large prints. However if 12x18 is
the largest print you will make, then what you do with your camera equipment is far more
important that the quality of the equipment. A standard point and shoot camera with 5 megapixels
can create great images.
The two most important pieces of equipment for taking landscapes are, a sturdy tripod and neutral
density graduated filters (ND grads). A tripod is absolutely required for the taking of all landscape
images. If you have 3,000 pixels across an image, even a steady hand will move at least 1/3,000th
of the way across an image during a short exposure time. That means that one pixel will blur into
the next one. That may mean nothing on a 4x6 print, but it will make a big difference on a 20x30.
ND grad filters are important because often the sky is much brighter than the land. Most landscape
images taken without ND grads have a sky that is too bright, land that is too dark, or both. ND
grads reduce contrast, and are absolutely required in order to make an image that looks the same
as you saw it with your naked eyes. This is because your eye can adjust to a wider range of light
levels than even the best camera. Sometimes one ND grad is not enough and two strong ones
may be required. Darkening the sky in PhotoShop is no substitute for ND grads, if the sky is
overexposed, you will not be able to get back detail in those areas.
While I like the way the fog looks here, it is still the typical shot from the side of the road that you
see so often. Getting a unique shot from the side of the road in such an over-photographed place
is a little like betting on a sports team that is highly likely to win. Sure, you may choose the winner,
but you will rarely make much money since everybody else is betting on the same thing.
I wanted to show the close-up texture of the lava on Kauai's north shore, but still show the entire
beach in focus. So I went to F22, which is the smallest aperture on my lens. This made the entire
photograph in sharp focus. Once you have decided on how you want to present your image,
knowing how to set the camera settings will enable you to get the effect you want.
Get more than one version: If you manage to be in the right place at the right time, make the most
of it. Get a portrait version as well as a landscape version. Change foregrounds while keeping the
same dramatic sky or mountain in the background. Many completely different images can be made
from the same location at the same time.
In this image, not only were the waves moving rapidly but the light from the sun was changing
constantly. So I had to change the settings after every shot. I also had to cover the camera with a
plastic bag in order to avoid getting salt spray (or worse) on the lens. This is not the time to be
figuring out how to change the settings! I managed to get the exposure time right (1/100 at F4,
ISO 400) in order to freeze the waves. But the area around the sun is overexposed. So this is not
in the gallery. I will try to get a better version of this photograph this winter.
Camera settings: Always use manual settings. You should be in full control of the images you
produce. Experiment with your camera and lens ahead of time. Note what aperture setting and
focal points yield sharpness over the range of distances you need. Use the hyperfocal distance
technique. For example, at your smallest aperture (often F22) you can focus 1/3 of the way into an
image (focusing 5 feet away perhaps) and an area possibly from 3 feet to infinity will be sharp. At
F8, an area from 12 feet to infinity may be sharp if you focus 20 feet away. Know your limits ahead
of time so that when you go out, you are ready to take your shots quickly and accurately. Often I
focus at infinity and can get objects as close as 3-4 feet to infinity in focus when at F16 or smaller.
And the far background appears to be just slightly sharper compared to when I use the hyperfocal
distance technique. However, the big problem with an F18 or smaller aperture is that there is
some slight distortion. This is because the camera can pick up the shape of the aperture or dust on
the lens or sensor. But usually, the advantages of using F22 outweigh the disadvantages.
But once I had taken that shot, I decided to get something more smooth and flowing. So I chose a
slightly different spot and exposure time. That gave me a second version. Some people like the
first one, while some like the second one. Get as many shots as you can when conditions are right.
Processing the Image
Digital format: If you are shooting digital, shoot in RAW format. RAW contains far more detail than
JPG’s. RAW files can be converted into TIFF files, which do not lose detail each time they are edited.
Invest in a good RAW converter program like Capture One or the like. For example, if parts of your
image are dark, it is much easier to get detail out of the dark areas using RAW versus JPG’s. If you
are using film or digital, shoot at the very lowest ISO setting or film that you possibly can. There
will be less noise and larger prints will look much better. You pay for this extra quality in longer
exposure times, but usually that is not a problem since you will be using a tripod. Wind may be a
Workflow: Once you have taken your shots, processing is extremely important to the success of an
image. Image processing can be at least as important as the shooting of the image. Whether you
are working with film or digital, the camera will not be able to record the scene as well as your
eyes. So each part of the image should be given your undivided attention. Restore detail in dark
areas and bright areas. Correct blemishes resulting from dust spots or salt spray. Producing a
good image may take 30 minutes to two hours or even more. Ansel Adams and others often spent
days working on a single image.
Digital Workflow: Each person will develop his or her own methods of processing. Here are some of
1. Shoot in RAW format in the Adobe color space. Check your camera settings.
2. Create a 16 bit TIFF file using a good RAW program like Capture one. Adjust exposure, color,
contrast, temperature, and possibly sharpen it slightly before converting to a TIFF file.
3. Look at the whole TIFF image on your screen in PhotoShop or your preferred image editor.
Adjust the horizon first.
4. On wide angle images, there may be vignetting (darkening around the edges), so fix this
problem before working on anything else.
5. Remove dust spots, and clone out any unwanted small objects like distant cars. I try to keep
cloning to a minumum and only use it when there is no better way to avoid a distracting element.
At this point, you can create individual layers to make the following adjustments. This is beyond
the scope of this brief overview. But you can work on the original layer if you want, and still get
great results. I often just stick with the original layer.
6. Look at each section of the image and decide what to do to each one. Use the lasso tool to
select each area. Then use ‘select/feather’ window to smooth out the effect around your selection
so that there is a smooth transition from the area you selected to the areas outside your
selection. Depending on the situation, feathering from 10-60 pixels is a good amount. Experiment
each time before applying the change. Each area may need small adjustments to look its best. The
sky may need more contrast or more detail. The land may need more light. A reflection may need
adjustment. If you are using PhotoShop or similar programs, use the Levels control to make these
adjustments. Be careful when making adjustments to horizons or other areas where there are
sharp edges. You may get distracting halo effects around the edges. When making lasso
selections, always select inside of a region and then feather it. Dodging and burning is another
way to make these adjustments, but I find it to be more difficult to control when making subtle
7. Once brightness and contrast look good, color saturation can be addressed. Be careful adding
color. If you add color where there was little, the image will just look manipulated. The more you
increase color saturation, the more grain and noise you add to the image. If the image is taken
after dark, a blue cast can be removed by adjusting levels for blues only. That will bring back what
you saw with your eyes.
8. Once these adjustments have been made, go over the complete image with a fine tooth comb.
View it at a size where you can see the whole image at once. Make sure that overall it looks good.
Then review the whole image at full (100%) resolution.
9. Sharpen the image only after the previous steps are completely finished! If using PhotoShop,
use the Smart Sharpen option on selected parts of the image individually. Rarely should the sky be
sharpened. It will only add noise. Sometimes you can add a little contrast to the sky by sharpening
it very slightly at an amount of 20%, a radius of 10-40 pixels, and a threshold of 0 levels. The
separate areas of the rest of the image should be selected on the inside of each area. Feather
each selection and then sharpen it. I often do two or three passes of sharpening on each area.
First at maybe (20% - 4.0 pixels – 0 levels.) This just adds a little contrast without adding noise.
Then I sharpen at (20-60% at about 2.0 pixels – 0 levels.) This makes things look a little sharper,
also without adding much noise. Then I do the ‘real’ sharpening at (50%-100% - 0.3-0.6 pixels – 0
levels.) Sometimes I will select the edges of a mountain, horizon, or other boundary area and
sharpen it separately. The edges often get sharpening halos if the sharpening is not done
10. Remove noise. Select each area separately, and feather it just as you did when adjusting
levels, saturation and sharpness. Use the noise filter in PhotoShop, or the equivalent. This give
you control over how much noise to remove. Experiment with different settings so that you remove
the noise without sacrificing detail. 'Revert' if you go too far. If you remove too much noise, you
end up with a strange look (especially in the sky) so be careful.
11. Once the TIFF file is completely finished, you can resize it for the web. After you resize an
image, you often have to sharpen it again. If the tiff file is too big, you can create a jpg image at
100% quality. This is a good way to get a high resolution image for printing or sending via email.
Often when creating web images, you can save it to as low as 50% quality and 30% of the original
jpg size and still have good quality for web applications.
Self-critique: It is very important to be realistic about the images you produce. Encourage and
allow people to say what they do not like about your images. You may think that a photograph you
just took looks great because you were there for that awesome sunset or storm. But you may not
realize that the image does not convey the drama of the moment. Listen to any critique you get
and incorporate it into your next shot under similar circumstances. For example, if someone says
that a foreground rock is blocking the view, open up similar views by reducing the size of the
foreground rock. Don’t get ‘married’ to an image. There is always a way to improve it by returning
to the location for another shot or processing the existing image differently. But also remember
that you cannot please everybody all the time.
Photo websites: One of the best ways to learn landscape and other photography is to join a photo
critique website. I belong to www.ePhotoZine.com (see below) and have received many
thousands of critiques on my images. And making critiques on images created by others forces you
to think about what is good and not good in an image. Nothing beats direct and honest critique
from an expert standing right in front of you, but anonymous critique is often more honest and
This article is about looking at your images in a critical way. While it is good to be proud of an
image you just made, try to be realistic and see what does not work in an image. Maybe the
composition looks good, but when you see the image after processing it look again. You may
realize that parts of it are out of focus. Maybe part of the sky is too bright. There are a million
things that can go wrong. Don't ignore what you see. Put yourself in the mind of an anonymous
viewer. That viewer might spot that out of focus area straight away. I was recently at an art
festival where a photographer was selling a 50 inch tall vertical panorama of a beautiful town on
the coast of Italy for a LOT of money. The photograph showed lots of houses built on the hillside,
but near the top was an extreme case of lens barrel distortion with the vertical lines severely bent
upwards and outwards towards the edge of the frame. A couple of people were looking at the
image as well. They were speaking in Russian, but even though I could not understand them, I
could tell exactly what they were talking about. They were using hand gestures and pointing to
the warped top of the image and were actually laughing. The photographer was probably very
proud of the image, but she should have been more critical of her own work. Especially when
trying to sell it for a lot of money!
I have learned a lot by reading many books on landscape photography. One great book that just
came out is called, The Guide to Great Photography. It was created by the founder of the largest
photo critique website in the UK, ePHOTOzine. I mention this website often, but I receive no
compensation from them and there are other websites that also offer critique and a good online
community for learning.
There are many professional photographers that I admire. One is the late Galen Rowell. A book on
his life's works called Galen Rowell, a Retrospective represents an incredible body of work
spanning the globe.
I have read many other books on landscape photography and will add them here soon.
Thanks for your interest!
It was a superb morning in Monterey. First I wanted to show the waves crashing on the rocks.
A quick note about equipment:
Up until December, 2008, I've used a 12mp Canon 5D and I now have a 21mp full frame 5D Mk II. The 5D could produce
24x36 prints with fine resolution when VERY carefully shot and processed. The Mk II will produce 36x48 prints at a
similar print resolution. My lenses include a Canon 17-40L and a Canon 24-105L. It is difficult to see a difference
between the 17-40L and the new 16-35L MkII so I'll probably stick with the 17-40 unless I need that extra wide angle
or sharpness at wide-open apertures around the edges of the photos.
I use 100x150 mm rectangular Lee neutral density (ND) graduated filters, which are gradually darker on half the plate in
order to even out the contrast between land and sky. The come in strengths from the rather weak 0.3 (1 stop) to the
strong (3-stop) 0.9, which is very dark on top. Sometimes I'll stack them if the sky is very bright compared to the
ground or sea. They fit into the Cokin Z-pro holder, which is essential if you wish to shoot extra-wide angles. Then,
the filter holder does not show up in the photograph. You can slide them up and down and angle them if one side of
the image is brighter than the other. Also, you can stack 3 of them in the standard configuration. Then, there is an
adapter ring that attaches to the filter holder and screws into the end of the lens. You must get a ring that is the same
size as your lens so check your lens before ordering the ring.
It is possible to use HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing to get an even exposure instead of using filters, but you
must take several shots at varying exposure times to do that correctly. Since timing is usually everything on my images,
I try to get it in one shot using the ND grad filters. I do use HDR on some night time images, especially of cityscapes
where the horizon is jagged and the lights must not be overexposed. I use Photomatix software for HDR processing
and Capture One software for RAW file processing.
I occasionally use circular screw-on ND filters, which are all dark, in order to make my exposure times longer. This comes
in handy when the chaotic action of the water might distract from the main subject. In that case, a strong ND filter (or
many) may increase a 1/2 second exposure up to a full minute, thus smoothing the water.
I use a compact Slik tripod with a Manfrotto pistol-grip head. These allow me to move quickly and set up before the
next wave strikes!