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20 Common Mistakes Beginners Make in Landscape Photography and How to Avoid Them

1. Rushing a Shot

No toddler has ever mastered the art of walking without several falls; similarly there is no professional photographer who has never committed mistakes in handling his gears and other aspects related to the art. Among these innumerable mistakes some of them are most probable ones and knowing them may enable one from committing them in future. In short; learn from other peoples’ mistakes and have the pleasure of giving them sweet advices!

Unlike street photography where everything depends on split second decisions and reactions as quick as reflex to get the shot at the precise moment; landscape photography requires time to get prepared. Scouting the location in searching different/better viewpoints, setting up equipment, waiting for the light/clouds/shadows whatever to be just right; these are just some of the rituals!

Photo by: Vaidotas Miseikas

Landscape photography is one genre of photography which cannot be rushed; patiently work on each frame taking ample time.

Never rush a shot, no matter what the reason

Bring some food and water, proper clothing/rain gear for both you and your equipment,  make sure you are not on a strict time frame, bring a like minded friend or even better a fellow photographer, avoid bringing family members or others who’s not interested in photography and would get bored soon.

2. Shooting Wide All The Time

landscape photography
Photo by: Alemdab

The first thing most beginners do when they see a beautiful landscape before them is to attach their widest lens and try to capture the scene in its entirety. But landscape photography is not about capturing as much of the scene as you can; it is the art of isolating the most important elements in a scene and portraying them in the best way possible.

In most cases capturing too much of the scene will only serve to distract the viewer from what you are trying to achieve. Shooting too wide causes elements in the middle and background to look tiny and irrelevant.

Zoom in, or put your tele photo lens to good use by focusing on the most important part of your frame, remember with a wide landscape there are many much more interesting frames just waiting to be explored.

Zoom in on different parts of a landscape and you’ll find many such opportunities, the capability of the long focal length lens to compress various elements in a scene can be used to create some pleasing landscapes. There are many award winning landscape photographs captured with lenses that are longer than 200mm.

3. Not Getting Your Horizons Leveled

If the horizon is visible in your photograph then make sure it is well in level. Human eyes are particularly sensitive to anything that is not level especially horizons. Although it can be straightened in post- production; that process will inevitably lose some portions of the image and it may affect both composition and image resolution.

Getting the horizon level when you’re shooting from an unusual angle could be a little tricky; it is advisable not to completely trust your judgment and use a bubble level to indicate when the camera is on an even keel. Either fix a bubble-level on the tripod or a little spirit-level that fits into camera’s hot-shoe. Many cameras at present have a digital level built-in that can be displayed in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

4. Forgetting About Shooting in Portrait Orientation

The fact that it is called a landscape photograph does not mean it has to be shot in the landscape orientation a 100% of the time. In most occasions it could be the best way to capture a landscape, however don’t feel limited by this; there are times when shooting in portrait orientation creates very unique and interesting landscape photographs.

In most cases it is simply impossible to tell which one looks better just by reviewing in the small LCD screen at the back of your camera. The best solution is to shoot both vertical and horizontal frames and decide which one’s best when reviewed at your computer.

5. Not Including an Interesting Foreground Element

landscape photography tutorial
Photo by: Tobi

Probably the most common mistake made by beginners to landscape photography is to get caught up in the beauty of the distant scenery and forgetting to add an interesting foreground element in the composition. The lack of an interesting foreground element may make the picture look dull and featureless; it will make viewers feel that you are far away from the scene.

The foreground element could be anything from a piece of drift wood when photographing sea shores, a patch of flowers when shooting a mountainous landscape or anything that can catch eye-balls. Try to compose the frame in such a way that the foreground elements leads the viewers’ eyes towards the main view, try to include something interesting in various layers, in the foreground, near the middle and towards the far distance.

6. Not Enough Depth Of Field

There are exceptions to this but it’s so rare; most landscape images require huge depth of field so as to render objects from near the camera to those towards the far end of the frame in acceptable sharpness. For achieving large depth field; choose a narrow aperture and carefully focus your lens at the hyper-focal distance.

7. Using Very Narrow Apertures

landscape photography tips and techniques
Photo by: Jesuscm

For better depth of field in their pictures; generally beginners make use of too narrow aperture; however using narrower aperture values has its limit; beyond that; it will actually reduce image quality due to diffraction. For any given lens, the sharpest aperture setting will be towards the middle of the scale, usually f/8 or f/11. Using apertures smaller than this will cause image softness; this won’t be apparent till you get to very narrow apertures like f/22 or f/32.

Take some time to shoot a scene with various apertures and find out the narrowest usable aperture of your lens; if a particular situation demands more depth of field; it could be achieved by focus stacking.

Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking is the technique of stacking several images to create a single image which would be sharp from front to back. It lets the use of lens at its sharpest aperture and still creates an image with sufficient depth of field. What is needed is to set the camera on a solid tripod so the composition does not change between shots. Set your lens to its sharpest aperture, usually f/8 or f/11. Shoot a sequence of images with focus set to different distances. Either start from the front and move towards the back or the other way around. Make sure you have captured enough frames to cover the entire landscape from foreground elements to background. Finally merge the images using any image editing software; there are softwares like Combine ZP, which could be downloaded for free.

8. Blurred Images

The combination of narrow aperture (to get maximum depth of field) and lowest possible ISO (to record maximum detail with least image noise) requires one to use slow shutter speeds to correctly expose the shot. This increases the risk of camera shake, in a landscape photograph slight image blur cannot be spotted while reviewing in the cameras LCD.

When reviewed in a computer monitor or when taken in print-outs; the blurs will become obvious. The way to avoid blurred images is to use a solid tripod, if necessary weigh it down, use mirror lock up function and a cable / remote release to trigger the shutter.

9. Blown out Highlights or Clipped Shadows

Landscapes are more often than not a high contrast situation. Often the sky is significantly brighter than the ground. So if you expose for the land, sky will appear blown out and if you expose for the sky the ground will be underexposed. There are many ways to fix this, generally landscape photographers use graduated neutral density filters to even out the difference.

A graduated neutral density filter enables one to even out the exposure difference and capture detail in both highlights and shadows in a single shot. Another option is to take multiple exposures, one exposing the sky and one the ground and blend them together.

10. Obvious Graduated Neutral Density Filter Use

When photographing scenes where there are foreground elements that run the length of the frame, like a tree or a tall building using a graduated neutral density filter is not recommended as the exposure change along their length will be immediately recognizable. Both of these will make the picture look un-natural and also exposes the obvious use of a GND filter.

Even when there are no such elements that extend into the sky, it is critical to position the transition section of the filter so that it goes unnoticed. Graduated filters work best when there is a well- defined horizontal separation between the land and the sky.

11. Incorrect Use of a Polarizing Filter

landscape photography
Photo by: Adrian Sifre

Polarizing filters are great at reducing reflections and improving color saturation, however their effectiveness varies with the type of lighting available at the scene. It is not advisable to attach a polarizing filter permanently to the front of the lens. They are most effective when sun is at a 90 degree angle to the camera. In other situations they have limited effect; also they cause loss of light up to two stops so in low light situations they could do more harm than good.

Polarizing filters may be used carefully with wide angle lenses; when they are used with a wide angle lens, they could produce uneven polarization visible especially in the sky. This could make the picture look un-natural and ruin an otherwise perfect shot.

12. Using Cheap Filters

Landscape photography uses many photographic filters; commonly used filters are UV, ND, GND and polarizing filters. They all serve different purposes, but what is important to note is; never skim on filters; use only good ones produced by reputed manufacturers. Using cheap quality filters will seriously degrade your image quality. What is the logic of mounting a $10 filter in front of your $1000 lens; one who does so get a $10 quality out of a $1000 camera lens!

13. Shooting at the Wrong Time

There is no standard, perfect time of day, perfect season etc. that can be counted on. It’s all about finding the right light. Professional landscape photographers may wait for days or even months to pass; to photograph the scene in the most perfect way. Image of a great landscape will look dull in an uninteresting lighting. Some extra effort taken for a revisit to the scene or some time spent to wait till there is desired light does not go waste.

The nature and quality of light has a huge impact on the landscape images, bringing colors to life, revealing texture and detail, accentuating the contours etc. when combined with the perfect sky, cloud formations the effect could be almost magical. If the sky is grey devoid of any features with little or no clouds; try converting the photograph to black and white.

14. Placing Horizon in the center of the frame

One of the main rules regarding horizons is not to place them in the center of the frame in such a way that it divides ground and sky 50/50. The trick is to position the horizon line more towards the thirds.

A low horizon

Placing the horizon towards the bottom of the frame is a great way of emphasizing a very dramatic sky.

A high horizon

Placing the horizon towards the top of the frame gives dominance to the lower portion of the image, allowing you to emphasize foreground detail.

So rule of thumb is to place the horizon towards the lower third when you have interesting sky and place it towards the upper thirds when the sky is dull but foreground is interesting.

15. Hot Spots

When you compose a frame without any sky visible, for example while photographing in front of trees or in the forest, watch out for hotspots, where small patches of sky can be seen through gaps in the foliage. Such hotspots are quite a distraction as they are areas of high contrast that can distract the viewers’ eyes; while what you intended to show go unnoticed. Such high contrast spots disrupt the natural flow of the photograph.

16. Not Using a Tripod

landscape photography tips
Photo by: Tobi

Many beginners feel it is not important to shoot on a tripod if there is enough light to use fast shutter-speeds. But it is not so, a tripod not only allows you to capture sharp images by reducing camera shake, it also makes you think about your composition, gives you better flexibility when choosing aperture coz you need not worry about slow shutter speeds. Similarly a tripod allows you to shoot at the lowest ISO settings and makes using filters like GND and Polarizing filters very easy.

17. Including Too Much Clutter

landscape photography
Photo by: Jeff S Photo Art

The human brain has a built-in filter it that lets to see only those elements that the person wants, but a camera does not have any such feature; it records everything in front of it. This is the reason why a perfect scene one has witnessed; does not look that ‘perfect’ when viewed in a photograph.

The best landscape photos are often the most simplistic. Trying to incorporate everything into your scene can make the image very distracting. Either compose the scene so that the unwanted elements are not there, or if possible remove these elements before you shoot, or if all else fails, remove them in post.

18. Poor Composition

landscape photography tutorial for beginners
Photo by: Lutz

Suppose in some occasion your image might have to compete with some well framed photographs; don’t give reason to feel any inferiority; for keeping your head high and declare “it is my photograph”; read the following.  When happened to be in a beautiful location don’t get carried away by the scene and fire off shots like a Western Movie hero. Landscape photography requires careful composition to be effective, Look around the scene, from various vantage points, decide on the what to include / exclude, where to place the horizon etc. also consider compositional guides like the rule of thirds and the golden mean.

19. Not Shooting RAW

Shooting in RAW has many advantages, it is especially so in case of landscape photography. Shooting RAW allows one to capture the scene in greater detail; get more information, power to alter white balance in post etc. It also gives the flexibility to generate HDR from a single image shot in RAW. You can also try processing using different white balance for sky and background and later combining them in Photoshop to create unique effects. The advantages are many so make it a habit to always shoot your landscape photographs in RAW rather than JPEG.

20. Going Over the Edge in Post Processing

Last but not the least a very commonly committed mistake of overdoing, in an urge to make their images as rich as possible, beginners often resort to overdoing like using overly saturated colors, image sharpness, contrast etc. This screams amateur photography like nothing else.

Develop a strong understanding of post processing and resist the tendency to overdo it. Also not using professional quality monitors (which are properly calibrated) to process the images will end up in unpredictable results; the image might have had an entirely different feel when seen in a different monitor.
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