I have been doing landscape photography pretty seriously now for about 3 years and I have come to this moment where I have decided that I need to write an article on how to take your photography to the next level. Over those years I have read all the quick tips for improving your skill as a landscape photographer. I would implement one or two here or there and improve just a little at a time. After a while I stopped clicking on those links so much because I out grew them. Once I stepped beyond the quick tips pages it was up to me to figure out new ways to improve. With that I began a new journey, really without me realizing it, into the depths of landscape photography and how to really go beyond the basics and how to really take my game to the next level.
What I will discuss today will be beyond composition and exposure, it will be about changing your attitude and understanding of landscape photography. These steps are harder to fulfill, but will improve your work. For some of you, this is going to hurt.
Pain equals growth though.
1- Ditch All Your Lenses But One
Ok gear heads. This is your pain point. Once upon a time I thought gear was everything. I really did. But after I began finding success with only the bare minimum I began to learn some really powerful lessons.
1-Gear only gets you so far. That next lens and that next camera body won't save your bad photos. I have seen plenty of bad photos come out of cameras way more expensive than mine.
2-Gear does not buy you success, only good photos do.
3-Once you hit your gears limits, new gear will enhance your photos and your skills to its greatest potential.
Outside the the world of photography this limiting is called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice hearkens back to that phrase which says 10,000 hours of doing something will turn you into a professional. By the way, that was a misquote of the original research. 10,000 hours won't make you good at anything unless it is deliberate, meaningful and always pushes you just out of your comfort zone. The way to achieve deliberate practice is to break something down to the basics and work on each individual step specifically.
How I am translating this to photography is remove your total focal range possibilities and only focus on your widest angles possible and nothing else.
The only real way of doing this is by not using any other lens except your widest. Take your other lenses and put them in a closet, safe and sound, and only attach one lens to your camera. This might hurt for quite a long time as you get use to it, but as you come to appreciate that lens and know it, you will come to love it. Unless the lens sucks, then don't use it.
Once its been a few months introduce something on the opposite spectrum. Use a telephoto on occasion and than begin to splash in other lenses until you feel like you have a positive grip on all of them. I am hoping as you introduce those other lenses, you will see them in a new light. They will provide a world of potential instead of a possible focal length.
2- Track the weather every day for 3 months
Mark Metternich once said on a Tripod podcast that in order to be an excellent landscape photographer you need to understand weather. Jim Harmer and I think every professional landscape photographer ever has said this. If I could leave it there I would, but most of us do not pay enough attention to the weather. Period.
How do you go about paying attention to the weather?
Download a weather app on your phone or your computer and I want you to track the weather every day for 3 months. When the weather says partly cloudy, go out and look. When it says sunny, look. When it says thunderstorms go out an look. See how the clouds move across your local landscape. Do they have a tendency to build up in some locations over others? The clouds in my region build up all day right now (as of May early June) but dissipate every evening as the sun goes down. This is due to the sun adding energy to the landscape and kicking up moisture off of it. As the sun goes down the energy decreases and the clouds break apart.
What does this tell me? Don't go out and shoot a killer sunset unless the weather app says the clouds are going to build up and stay around all evening. Most weather apps have an hour by hour weather. They are getting really good. Trust them.
- take note of when clouds show up
- when they leave
- what swing in temperature do
Once you have finished this exercise it should be built into you. Even if you visit an area, you should begin to see how the weather acts in that region just after a day and hopefully this will get your creative juices going.
Since I am talking about weather apps, I exclusively use the Weather Channel App. I like the layout and it includes radar, hour by hour, and nice pictures of local landscapes.
3-Visit a spot. Then again. And again. And again.
Great shots rarely occur during the first visiting to a location unless it is very well planned. More often then not, I have returned to a location trying to get a better shot because I was unsatisfied with the previous shot. The other method to visiting a spot is to do it in a scouting mission. To do this simply go out and look around and see what an area looks like. GPS the location and begin tracking the weather there to see when it will be the right time to come back and visit.
For this one, I want you to think of your favorite locations to photograph and I want you to go back until you get the shot that only the “pro's” get. Go back until you get it or until your camera blows off a cliff and snaps your lens in half like I did… I might not go back there for a while.
4-Download The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) And Pre-visualize (aka photo app)
Note: I am not sponsored by these guys, if you use Photo Pills go for it. I use Android and didn't have access to Photo Pills until a few weeks ago so I don't have it yet.
Downloading a photography app was the best thing I ever did to increase my results in the field. It also was the best thing I did for planning shots. Photography apps are really advanced these days. They predict sun rises, sun sets, moon rises and sets, phases of the moon, even how celestial objects move across the landscape. These are extremely powerful for planning a trip. Let me explain how I use them and how I planned a shot with one.
Since I do landscape photography part time, I am constantly checking TPE. It has built in google earth so I can sit down and plan shots and scheme constantly. One day I was wanting to get a sweet image of Bryce Natural Bridge in Bryce Canyon National Park. So I pulled out my phone and pulled open my photography app. I set my location right in front of the arch and began going day by day to see when the sun would rise and how it moved across the landscape. As I tracked it, I realized at the time of planning, the sun would be blocked by mountains to the North of the arch and I would have to wait 3 months before the sun was in the right location.
That is what I did.
I set a date in my calendar for the appropriate time and waited. I knew the sun would rise at 7:03 from the right angle on a particular day. As the day arrived I began tracking weather. On my first attempt the skies were completely empty. The weather app said it would be but I had bundled a bunch of other photographic locations in with it as well so I had to go anyways. Since I live close enough to Bryce though, I pulled out my photo app and began to plan.
I tracked the sun for another two weeks and realized I had one more week of proper sun alignment. I then pulled out my weather app and checked for a partly cloudy day and BAM I had a another day when the sun would still align and I would get the shot. So I woke up at 4 am and drove 2 hours to stand in 5 degree weather and got the shot you see below.
This would have been impossible without the ability to track the sun and its movements. If you have not yet purchased a photo app and you are wanting to become a serious landscape photographer, you are missing the boat. Buy one.
The challenge for this step is to go plan every shot you possibly can for the next three months. This habit of planning will lock you into a mindset of thinking of light, direction and time of year.
5-Practice Makes Perfect.
A few months back I got laid off from my position as a wildlife technician. I was guaranteed a job come spring, but I had three months to wait. With this knowledge, my wife went back to work and I made the leap into the position of full time landscape photographer. I suddenly had the time to travel, visit explore and most importantly shoot every single day if I wanted to. This sudden release of time taught me so much about landscape photography and the business side of it. It also honed my skills in such a way that I had not realized I was lacking.
Because I was photographing three to five times a week, I was quickly figuring out what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right. I also had time to learn advanced photo editing techniques that I had neglected before hand. I even learned new attributes about my lens and its capacity to focus and what really mattered in that field.
Spending excessive time with your gear will open up new doors for you. You will begin to see how your lens sees and you will rarely find yourself in a situation where you are guessing fields of view with your gear. You will learn where to focus for max results. It will be amazing for your skills and your career.
This is my final piece of instruction.
Photograph 3 times a week for three months.
Do that for the next three months, and I can promise you that your skills will accelerate beyond what you could have ever imagined. The commitment will be grueling for those who live deep within the city, but you can sharpen your skills by visiting local parks and cityscapes as well. This final commitment wraps up all the others.
I am calling this the #mighty5challenge. Everyone who reads this and wants to take their photography to the next level, I want you to tag your photos with #mighty5challenge on Instagram. I will come up with some way to share them or I will hunt them down and I will personally comment on some of my favorite images I see. Along with that, you can see the other IP users who are trying out this challenge and you can encourage them as well.