Regardless of how seasoned we may be as photographers, there will always be mistakes that sneak their way into our workflow. For landscape photographers in particular, early mornings, late nights, and challenging conditions can lead to fatigue or distractions that cause us to lose focus (no pun intended) on important details that can make or break our photos.
I recently took a trip to California and spent time photographing in Joshua Tree National Park, Alabama Hills, and Death Valley National Park. It was a trip that was filled with sleep deprivation and shooting conditions that I had not encountered before, and, as a result, I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Some of these errors were minor and just meant that I would need to spend a little extra effort in post-processing compensating for them. Others, however, were critical mistakes that made me unable to print a photo due to poor quality, or unable to use them in general.
In reality, there are few errors which affect the quality of a landscape photo that cannot be traced back to the basics of photography. The reason for many of my mistakes was that once I got into an unfamiliar situation with a sleep-deprived brain that was not running at 100% (or probably even 60% for that matter), I started forgetting fundamentals that are usually second nature when I’m shooting in my comfort zone.
I have made plenty of landscape photography mistakes over the years, but the high number of them that I seemed to make while in California made me realize that I needed to try to develop some sort of system to help me avoid those same errors in the future. With that said, allow me to put on my humble hat and run through some of the many landscape photography mistakes I have made in hopes that it will help you avoid making the same ones.
Of all the mistakes to try to avoid in the field, broken gear is one of the ones that is the most difficult to prevent. Lenses can be dropped or jostled, camera bodies can get wet, and any other number of mechanical failures could occur that you just cannot plan for. The unfortunate reality is that sometimes gear will break in the field and you will lose your shot.
Two winters ago, I bought a shiny new Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens to use for Milky Way photography. My first trip out to use it was a 3 a.m., -15 degrees Fahrenheit stop at a lighthouse on the coast of Maine, one that I had visited many times throughout my childhood. Being familiar with the location, I did very little to prepare, basically making sure my camera battery was charged and nothing else.
The unfortunate reality is that I should have put my new lens through some simple focus and sharpness tests before taking it out into the field, because despite perfect conditions (okay, maybe a little bit warmer than -15 degrees would have been nice), my lens was decentered, leading to the left third of my image to be out of focus, and cursing me to never be able to print the shot bigger than about 8”x12”.
So, while many of us cannot have spare camera bodies and lenses with us in case one malfunctions or goes for a swim, we can at least take the time to make sure that the gear we do have is in proper working order prior to going out in face-numbing weather in the middle of the night.
Out Of Focus
There are certain landscape photography mistakes that, if they are made in the field, can be overcome in post-processing. Missing focus is not one of those mistakes, and doing so caused me to lose a few shots I would have otherwise been very happy with during my recent trip. With that said, having an out of focus photo can be caused by a few different factors.
Checking to make sure you focused a lens properly is Photography 101. Unfortunately, after a few too many nights in a row of sleeping in a car for 4 hours or so, even the basics can become easy to forget. The photo below, taken at Ibex Dunes in Death Valley at sunrise, is soft enough that I don’t expect to be able to print it. After thinking through the series of events when taking this photo, I think my mistake must have been relying on autofocus instead of manual focus when I set up the shot. Since I composed the photo before sunrise, I don’t think the autofocus on my D750 was quite good enough to get the lens at the right focus point, but it looked good enough on the back of my LCD that I thought I had a sharp image. With the light changing so quickly, I trusted my camera, didn’t check to confirm, and moved on to take other shots.
Depth of Field
Many landscape photographers, myself included, like to try to get details in their composition in sharp focus from the foreground to the background. This means that we often shoot at high apertures to achieve a deeper depth of field. Personally, I usually shoot wide angle shots, so setting my aperture to f/16 on something like a 15mm or 16mm lens will get my entire frame in focus unless I place a foreground object within a few feet of the front of my lens.
For those landscape shooters that are interested in dabbling with a telephoto lens to try capturing new types of landscape shots, I can say with full confidence that the depth of field shrinks at longer focal lengths even more than you might expect. When out in Death Valley, I knew I would have plenty of opportunities for telephoto landscape shots, so I rented a 70-300mm lens to use in the sand dunes and other areas which could benefit from longer focal lengths.
Again from sleep deprivation (seeing a common theme here?), I threw my aperture at f/16 out of habit and never bother to check my shots taken at longer focal lengths, and I came home to realize that many of my telephoto shots in the sand dunes were not sharp from front to back. Even on the shots where I remembered to focus stack, I still found myself wishing that I had taken one or two extra shots so I could have gotten everything sharp.
The risk of camera shake comes into play during long exposures and it can ruin a shot if you are not careful. There are obvious ways to avoid most camera shake (shoot at a fast shutter speed if the conditions allow; put your camera on a sturdy tripod); however, I have found out the hard way that there are still a few things that can slip my memory in the field.
The name will vary by the brand of your lens. Canon is “Image Stabilization”, Nikon is “Vibration Reduction”, Tamron is “Vibration Control”. In any case, modern lenses have mechanical systems in place to try to counteract the shake of your unsteady hand. On some lenses, however, the mechanical system that is your friend off of the tripod can be your enemy when on a sturdy set of legs. While some modern lenses can sense when your camera is stable and disengage the vibration reduction system, some lenses can’t tell when your camera is hand held and when it is tripod mounted. As a result, having your vibration control system active can introduce shake into your image when your camera is mounted on a tripod.
If you know your lens and are confident that its image stabilization system won’t kick in while on a tripod, by all means ignore this rule. If you are unsure or just want to be safe, remembering to flip that switch on the side of the lens barrel to “off” will be an important part of your workflow on a tripod to rule out a possible cause of camera shake.
I will openly admit that I haven’t used mirror lockup in years. I have no idea why I don’t use it. I have never run a test to see if and when it introduces shake to my images, so there is really no good hard data to back up my decision. Luckily for me and for you, Jim Harmer ran a test to give us a better idea of when the movement of a DSLR’s mirror when taking an image can introduce enough shake to blur your image. Check it out and decide for yourself if mirror lockup is something you want to consider when taking shots in the field.
Crushed Shadows and Blown Highlights
In landscape photography, dynamic range (the range of bright and dark tone that can be capture in one image) is a big limiting factor in what kind of scenes can be photographed with a single exposure. Underexpose your image, and you risk losing details in your shadows, result in pure black parts of your image or shadows which suffer from ugly magenta and luminance noise, a mistake that I may far too often when first getting started in night sky photography. Overexpose your image, and bright white highlights with little or no recoverable detail may plague your image (assuming that isn’t the look you are going for).
While bracketing your exposures can solve this problem, sometimes fast-moving subjects, fast-moving light, or just being in a rush and forgetting to bracket can stand in the way of you getting the right amount of photons to hit your camera sensor. While many landscape photography mistakes can be corrected, or at least partially managed in post-processing, if you do not capture the data you need in the first place, then there is nothing for you to post-process.
The Non-Technical Mistakes
While misusing your gear in some way can be a death sentence to a good composition, no amount of technical perfection will create a good photo that was doomed from the start. The great Ansel Adams famously said that “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, which cuts right to the heart of photography. Without vision and a discerning eye, nothing mentioned above will even have the chance to be the downfall of your photo. While there were certainly photos that suffered due to technical errors I made in the field, the reason this bothered me was because I was so happy with the lighting and compositions I had in the photos. So, while nailing your focus and avoiding blur are important, make sure that your first priority is always observing a scene, deciding what about it makes you want to photograph it, and composing a shot worthy of a sharp, clean exposure.
For me, the solution to avoiding landscape photography mistakes means finding a way to remind myself not to skip the obvious failsafe practices that will help to catch mistakes: checking settings, checking focus, and more.
To make sure that the images I am taking are in focus, I quite obviously need to just zoom in on the photo on the back of my camera’s LCD screen to confirm that my camera captured a sharp image. The issue I sometimes have with this process is that my camera allows me to zoom well beyond 100%, which can make it difficult to tell what level of sharpness I should be looking for. My solution: after formatting your SD card before going out on a shoot, take a photo of a newspaper or a page from a book with each of the lenses you plan on using so that you have a reference photo you can view on the back of your LCD. This way you can compare the sharpness of the letters in that photo at different zoom levels to the features in your others photo that you want to confirm are sharp.
Depth of Field
While you should confirm after taking and image that you achieved good focus and no unwanted motion blur, getting a cell phone app geared towards hyperfocal distances can help to give you an idea before shooting what your depth of field will be. For my Android phone I downloaded HyperFocal Pro, but there are numerous apps on both Android and iOS that will give you the information you need to get the job done.
Histogram, histogram, histogram. The best way to know if you are losing detail in your shadows or in your highlights is by checking the histogram. Make sure that the “peaks” in your histogram don’t extend all the way to the left (the shadows) or all the way to the right (the highlights). If they do, you are losing detail in your shot and may want to consider adjusting your exposure or bracketing your shots. However, if you aren’t fluent in histogram or just have some irrational hatred of them, turning on settings in camera that warn you of blown highlights can also help. The location of these settings can vary by camera brand and model, but the basic idea is having the highlights of your image flash black and white while you review an image in camera to warn you that you may be losing detail in those areas. Turn a setting like this one on can be a quick and dirty way to let you know that your settings should be adjusted.
Sleep deprivation is the most difficult situation in landscape photography to avoid and overcome. In order to shoot early morning sunrises or night sky scenes during the very late (or very early) hours of the day, being tired while shooting is bound to happen. Caffeine is an obvious bandage for a sleep deprived brain; however, from my experience, a few too many nights of limited sleep can’t be fully overcome by a cup of coffee or an energy drink. So, my solution is to keep a simple checklist written down that I can reference for each composition I shoot. This can be in an index card you have in your pocket, on a checklist in your phone, or tattooed on your arm—whatever makes you most likely to check it when you need it.
Check Before the Shot:
- Tripod Stability
- Vibration Reduction
- Mirror Lockup
- Sharp Focus
Check After the Shot:
- Check Histogram (Is Bracketing Needed?)
- Confirm Sharpness (Is Focus Stack Needed?)
- Examine Composition and Recompose If Needed
Mistakes can and will happen eventually for all landscape photographers. Good habits are a great way to prevent these mistakes from turning into photo-ruining errors, but sometimes a few extra tricks are needed to overcome a stressful situation or a tired brain. Do you best to prepare, and get out there and get some great shots.