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January 3, 2013

Improve Your Landscape and Travel Photography

Ocean Sunrise

Today I want to talk about landscape and travel photography and share some tips and tricks to help improve your landscape and travel photography. Even though I make my living as an assignment, event and a portrait photographer I love to photograph landscapes. For me shooting landscapes allows me to relax and just enjoy photography. There’s no deadlines and no expectation of delivering perfect images. Long story short – there’s no pressure to perform because shooting landscapes is not how I earn my living. Photographing landscapes (and post processing the images you capture) can really have a positive effect on all of your photography – especially your travel photography. For this article I don’t want to talk about camera settings or gear. I want to share a few tips and tricks that helped me to take my landscape and travel photography to the next level.

Some great benefits of landscape photography

I’ve been photographing landscapes for over thirty years now. Back when I first started I was just a kid taking pictures of Alaska from one of the Marine Highway ferries with a 110 film camera. Those shots aren’t what I’d gall “great” but after years of practice and learning I’ve picked up a few techniques that helped me improve. I also discovered a lot of real benefits to being a landscape shooter.

One thing I love about Landscape photography is getting to go see some truly breathtaking sights. To capture great landscape shots you really should be going to places with incredible views. This means going out to scenic locations like lakes, mountains, historic places and parks. I’m a big fan of America’s National Parks and I’m super lucky to live pretty close to one. Here’s a shot I took at from one of the scenic overlooks of the Shenandoah National Park:

Sunrise in the Shenandoah

To get this kind of shot you really need to go to scenic places. That’s awesome because it might mean traveling to someplace you’ve never been before. I happen to love traveling to new places and getting to experience natures beauty with my eyes first and my camera second. It’s peaceful, quiet and the air’s fresh. The pictures I capture can remind me of my experience years later.

Getting yourself in shape

Here’s another really great benefit to being a landscape shooter. You’re going to get some exercise. Getting the best landscape shots means getting to a scenic location and bringing your gear along. A lot of my favorite places to shoot from are only accessible by foot so I find myself hauling a camera, a tripod and other miscellaneous gear pretty long distances. A few climbs up to a mountain lookout with a pack of photo gear will get your heart rate up and the muscles in your legs burning in no time. You’re certain to get a work out.

After you make a couple of mountain hikes you’ll learn a lot about what to bring. As I get older I try  to only bring what I really need (so I can save some weight). You can learn important lessons from books, blogs and seminars but when you walk up a mountain with 75lbs of gear you learn a real lesson about bringing too much gear. That’s something that doesn’t sink in until you make the mistake yourself. I’m not too proud to say that I’ve been up a mountain with too much gear and it sure taught me the importance of packing light.

Packing light is important but be sure not to go overboard. When you start thinking minimalist with your gear it’s easy to go too far and leave something behind. I know I’ve made it to many scenic locations just to realize I forgot something important. Just remember that it’s totally cool to make some mistakes. Making mistakes is a great way to learn what not to do. After years of traveling and shooting I’ve become pretty skilled at packing exactly what I’ll need (and not too much extra). Practice and planning can really help you improve your pictures (and save your back).

So what happens when you take a hike up the side of a mountain with some camera gear? You can capture shots like this:

mountain side view

To get this shot I carried my gear almost a mile up the side of this mountain. I brought a sturdy tripod, a full frame camera with a wide angle lens, a cable release and some empty sandbags to steady my tripod (I fill them with dirt when I arrived at my destination and empty them when I’m done shooting). You definitely get a workout when you hike to a scenic location with some photography gear.

The best benefit of shooting landscapes

But here’s the best part of shooting landscapes. You can make pretty good money with your landscape shots. I sell thousands of dollars of prints every year and I license images for use on websites and in advertising campaigns. That’s great because I never go up a mountain with the expectation of selling the pictures. It’s just a side benefit since I don’t actively market my images. But I did learn that if you stick with it and you build up a solid collection of landscape shots you can earn pretty good money. I know plenty of photographers who use the money earned from print sales to purchase new gear. If you sell more prints you can buy more gear! How cool is that?

 

Creating better landscape pictures

I’d like to share two tips that really helped me to take better landscape pictures. Above I mentioned that you need to go to scenic places and that’s a seriously good start. But if you want to make the most of that scenic location you have to be prepared to get to your location super early and stay kind of late. The reason you need to do this is because the world just looks better during the two golden hours of the day.

Shooting During Golden Hours

What is a golden hour? It’s the time just before, during and immediately after sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately it’s not always an hour and it’s not always golden. Depending on the weather you may not get anything exciting at all. But I can say this – your odds are 50/50 that you’ll get beautiful colors and less people in your shots if you are shooting at sunrise and at sunset. You get zero chance of capturing exciting colors in the middle of the day.

My personal preference is to capture images early in the morning. I’ve found that it’s less crowded and I prefer the look of sunrise more than sunset (your results may be different). I also like the peace and quiet of the early morning. Here’s a shot of me preparing to capture a sunrise from up in the Shenandoah Mountains:

Getting ready for golden hour

I was out the door before 4:00am to arrive at my location before sunrise. Along with my photography gear I bring plenty of water, flashlights, extra batteries and a nifty little bear bell  (because it is a national park after all). It might look bright in the picture above but believe me when I say that it’s super dark when I arrive (I was filled in by the pop-up flash in this shot). Once I’m set up I just relax and enjoy nature as the sun begins to rise. Here’s a look at one of the images I captured just before civil twilight from the above location:

Civil twilight in the mountains

I’ve seen thousands of sunrises in my life and even though I don’t always bring home great pictures I do get to start my day in a way that most people never will.

Golden Hour Isn’t Just for National Parks

One of my ongoing projects is photographing the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. Every year I drive into Washington, DC to see the incredible beauty of the Yoshino Cherry Trees in full bloom. To capture shots that are different from what every other tourist captures I prefer to shoot during golden hour. To give you an idea what I’m talking about here’s a look at one of my most popular shots.

Sunrise on the Tidal Basin

I arrived at my location an hour before sunrise (which meant being out the door before 4:00am) to get this shot. It was one breathtaking sunrise and 30 minutes after I took this shot the sky looked totally boring. It’s anything but golden but it was captured in the morning golden hour.

After I capture my sunrise images I pack up my gear and watch as the area changes from having less than a few dozen photographers to being packed with thousands of visitors (all with cameras). It really pays to wake up early and beat the rush.

Landscape photography tip #1 – Find a scenic location (and scout it if you can), keep track of what the weather will be like and on the day of your shoot try to arrive before sunrise to get the best chance of capturing some incredible morning colors in the sky.

Post-process your landscape images so they look their best

Post production is what separates average landscape shots from spectacular landscape shots. I use Lightroom 4, Photoshop CS6 and onOne Perfect Effects to process my RAW files and I’d like to share a few techniques I use to make my landscape images really sing.

Go for deep blue skies

Not all landscape shots are captured during golden hours. Sunrise and sunset are my favorite times to shoot but they are not the only times I’m out with my camera looking for shots. If you have perfect weather you can capture some deep blue skies filled with interesting looking clouds. Unfortunately digital cameras have their limits so sometimes I need to get that deep blue color in my post production. There’s just something about a deep blue sky that makes any landscape shot look better and I have a Lightroom technique that usually does the trick.

My post-production secret weapon

It’s not uncommon for me to see an incredible blue sky at a scenic location. Unfortunately it’s also common for me to arrive home to review pictures without the blue sky I remember. Whenever this happens I know that I’ll have to restore that killer sky with some RAW file processing. There’s plenty of ways to do this but I have a super fast technique that usually does the trick.

How do I turn boring skies into awesome skies in post production? I do it by taking advantage of  the HSL panel in Lightroom. HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, Luminance and with 24 separate sliders you can really work some magic. For photographers who are interested in manipulating colors this is one of the best places to make some serious moves. Most people don’t take full advantage of this powerful panel but once you see what you can do I’m willing to bet that you’ll use my “blue sky technique” on every landscape shot you process. I’ll start by bringing up a picture from my most recent Disney World vacation in Lightroom.

A Disney World shot open in Lightroom

This is an OK shot but I know I can make it better. I begin my processing by making all of my usual Lightroom adjustments including: Lens correction, noise removal, highlight control, opening the shadows, boosting vibrance and adding clarity. To get my deep blue skies I move over to the HSL panel where I select the Luminance sliders. Here’s a look at the HSL panel in Lightroom 4:

The Lightroom 4 HSL panel

To quickly access the HSL panel you can hit command + 3 on your Mac or CTRL + 3 on your PC. Once I have the HSL panel open I click the word Luminance at the top of the panel. Doing this gives me sliders that control the lightness and darkness of the individual colors. At this stage I drag the blue slider to the left (darker) and that brings out the deep blue color I want my landscape shots to have. Here’s a look at the same shot but with the blue luminance slider moved to the left:

blue luminance adjustment

How awesome is that? By getting more deep blue into the sky you instantly make your landscape and travel shots look better. You also make the sky darker than other elements in your shot and that helps to bring a viewers attention to more important elements. When the sky is washed out the shot loses life but with the deep blue sky you add depth and interest to your shots. And  this technique is done by moving just one slider!

Beware of the unintended consequences

So now we have a killer looking sky. That’s great! But it’s important not to miss what else took on some deep blues when you make that move. Look at the supports for the Epcot dome (circled in red):

here's where an unwanted blue cast was added

I wanted a deeper blue sky but Lightroom doesn’t know what in the image is sky and what’s not. When you darken blue with Lightroom you’ll bring extra blue into shadows and other areas of your image. That may not sound like a big deal but for me it’s the difference between an OK shot and a great shot. The quick fix for removing extra blue with Lightroom is to use the adjustment brush to paint in a color temperature correction on areas where you have a blue color cast. Here’s a look at where I applied the adjustment brush on this image to remove the excessive blue:

Using the adjustment brush to correct white balance issues

To see where I’m painting I use the overlay feature (press the “O” key to toggle the red overlay Mask on and off). Once I finish painting where I don’t want extra blue I moved the temperature slider away from blue (moving it to the right) until I was happy with the result. I don’t want to remove all the blue but I don’t want a distracting color cast. When you’re happy you can go ahead and close the adjustment brush panel by clicking the “close” button. In this case I used values of +19 temp and +14 hue to correct the blue cast.

With the sky a deep blue and the color casts under control you can proceed to add more enhancements such as sharpening, contrast and any artistic touches like a vignette.

Landscape photography tip #2 – Take advantage of post production software to get the most from your landscape and travel shots

What else can you do in the HSL panel??

Darkening skies isn’t the only thing you can do in the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel. I have two more moves I like to make to help problem areas of a shot. The first move is to improve the color of blue in the skies when darkening the luminance just isn’t enough. The easy way for me to make this fix is to click the word Hue at the top of the HSL panel and I’ll move the aqua slider to the right. This move will change a light blue color sky into a deeper blue. You don’t always have to do this but sometimes it can get you out of a jam.

The second trick is to improve the color of grass (and other greens). When you make a saturation boost in an image greens can sometimes go a little out of control. This usually happens because you are boosting the color yellow that is in the grass. To get the grass looking a deep green I click the word saturation at the top of the HSL panel and I’ll lower the yellow slider until I’m happy with how green looks. Be sure to give this trick a try to see if it helps your images.

One final tip I’ll leave you with is that using the HSL panel and adjustment brush can really help you with your HDR images. By having sliders for each color you can go in and attack some of the crazier color casts that HDR images sometimes contain. You’ll have to experiment since every shot is a little different but once you get used to what the sliders do you’ll be able to make super fast corrections to your images. And with Lightroom these adjustments aren’t destructive. If you go too far with a slider you can always go back and readjust the slider.

Lets take a look at the before and after images of the Disney World picture so you can see what using the HSL panel did to improve my shot:

Before and after images

I think that’s a pretty substantial improvement.

 

Some final thoughts

For the post processing tips I showed Adobe Lightroom 4 but most of the moves will work with earlier versions of Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW (included with Photoshop). The post production moves work best with RAW files but they can also be helpful with jpegs.

Practice and planning are your best friends with this kind of photography. My cherry blossom at sunrise shot (shown above) was captured on my third trip to DC to photograph them. It took me three years to get that shot in 2010 and I continue to go back every year to try to improve. Practice as often as you can and when you can’t be out shooting you can always think about how you might improve your landscape shooting. The DC cherry blossoms are only in bloom for a week or two so when the flower petals are all gone I have 50 weeks to think about my next trip to see them and take better shots of them.

As you improve your landscape shooting your other styles of Photography will also improve. When I’m on a location portrait shoot I find myself using what I learned from shooting landscapes to make sure my backgrounds look their best. And shooting landscapes really helped my travel photography to improve.

So if you’re not shooting landscapes I encourage you to give it a try. You can always try on your own or you can look for workshops in your area taught by an expert instructor. You’ll get some exercise, see some beautiful sights and you might get some great shots you can print and sell. How awesome is that?

 

If you’re not using Lightroom I highly encourage you to see how it can help your photography. It’s a powerful image editor and organization tool (along with many other great features). You can purchase a full version of Lightroom here.

Are you interested in learning more about Lightroom? Some of my favorite books about Lightroom are written by Scott Kelby and you can purchase his newest Lightroom book here.

And for more tips, tricks and stories from my travel and landscape adventures be sure to stop by my personal blog here.

 

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About the Author

Monico
I am a photographer and business owner that lives in Virginia. My business serves clients in the Washington DC area but I travel to do location shoots all over the USA. While photography and photoshop are my business I also enjoy teaching and sharing what I've learned over the years. I'm a "general" photographer that specializes in location portrait work but I can be found shooting weddings, equine shows, landscapes and so much more. I'm proud to be an author here on Sony Alpha Lab and I look forward to contributing to the community here.




8 Comments


  1. Paul

    Thanks for the great article. Learning so much of your articles. Keep up the good work!

    greetings from The Netherlands


    • Thank you for the comment and the compliment, Paul. I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying my contributions.

      I’ve never been to the Netherlands but I hope to get there some day. I know a pro fashion shooter in Emmeloord that I want to visit some day.

      Thanks again!


  2. Thanks for the article! One additional point is that the easiest and best way to get color under control is to take a shot of a gray reference in the same light as the photo that you will later correct. I use this one http://www.sjphoto.com/graycap.html, but there are many others available. Take a pic of the reference, probably just holding it out at arms length. Then, in Lightroom, use the color dropper on the reference gray, which tells LR to correct the color temp and hue so as to make this spectrally neutral. Then sync the reference shot to the “real” shots taken in the same light. Voila! There are a couple of things to note, though. First, this will indeed correct the white balance, but shooting in the golden hours you may not WANT to really be corrected. Still, I always start here, and then can more easily get from a known place to where I really want to be. Second, it will only work well with raw, because if you’re shooting jpg’s the camera will have made some color decisions when it created those jpgs. I don’t consider that a limitation, because I always shoot raw, and so should anybody shooting landscapes.


    • Hi, Jerry Fiddler. Thanks for the comment and the compliment.

      Using a reference grey card is a good technique and I have plenty of color reference tools (grey cards, x-rite color checkers, etc.). I consider them vital for client work that requires color accuracy. I do plenty of product photography in my studio, for example, and it’s super important for colors to be 100% accurate when a shot is going to be used to advertise a product.

      With my Lightroom tip I was trying to share a technique that gets a more pleasing picture and not a perfectly neutral shot. The supports for the Epcot dome are pretty much neutral grey and when I click on the uprights with a white balance tool to remove the blue color cast it takes all the blue out of the sky. That made the picture more accurate but the overall feel to the picture becomes gloomy. Using a grey card would give me the same result. 100% accurate grey hurts the shot.

      Here’s a few of my thoughts on using neutral grey cards to get 100% accurate colors:

      1) I try to convey an perfect version of a location with my landscape and travel photography. I want people to see my shots and say: “I want to go there.” Adding saturation and playing with color balance can really help a shot even though it’s not totally color accurate. Some things are totally out of my control and if I have less than perfect conditions I don’t want it to be obvious in my final images. Whenever I have gloomy conditions, for example, I don’t want people to feel dread when they look at my shots. If the weather is off the charts bad I’ll convert the image to black and white. Once I’m black and white I start dodging, burning and making huge color moves to create a lot of contrast so being color accurate for a starting point isn’t something I look for.

      2) I’ve found that using the 15% grey reference card doesn’t really help me when I’m out on location. When I’m shooting a scenic vista the lighting where I’m holding my card could be different from mountains that are miles away, for example. Instead of using a grey reference card I prefer to go in and make targeted color corrections in Photoshop. That’s a subject for a future blog entry because it is a bit of a complicated subject.

      3) You are correct that I don’t want neutral grey during golden hour. Correcting for neutral grey could easily remove some of the color saturation I’m trying to capture. This is a personal preference of mine and other’s may see things differently.

      4) As a full time photographer I’m hired to be creative and that usually means delivering my own personal vision of an image. Some of my personal success comes from how I manipulatie colors to create an image. It’s not uncommon, for example, to drive the white balance toward warm to get a more pleasing look in my images. One technique I use is to pick a different white balance setting than the conditions call for. If it’s clear out but I’m photographing a person I might choose a cloudy white balance to get a little more warmth into the shot. That little move can be the difference between having someone look pale or looking alive and vibrant.

      5) I’m a big user of flash for most of my photography and I use a lot of colored gels to create unique looks with my final images. In those situations I’m working to create anything but 100% accuracy. In my film days I used to make color moves with colored lens filters, flash gels and color corrected film to achieve unique images. WIth digital cameras and programs like Photoshop it’s a lot easier to create unique looks (or 100% color accurate looks) without all of the additional work.

      6) Before I started my photography business I worked as a full time photoshop technician and touchup artist in a design studio. Almost every project I worked on started as a jpeg image and not a RAW file. Getting 100% accurate color is totally possible with a jpeg image if you know the ins and outs of working with curves and channels in Photoshop. It’s a lot more work than having a grey reference card in a RAW file that you can click with a white balance tool but it is achievable. It’s also important to note that you can get a working image that has multiple lighting conditions and a single white balance adjustment won’t fix everything. In those situations you need to target your color corrections to get things looking right.

      What I’m saying is that 100% accurate colors can be super important for some projects but not every project. I’m also very aware that not everyone has a deep photoshop knowledge or wants to spend a bunch of time playing with colors. Most pro photographers want to spend as little time in post production as possible so getting a grey card shot is preferred. No wedding shooter, for example. that captures 3000+ images wants to go in and perform targeted color corrections on every image, that’s for sure. The Lightroom tip I shared was meant to be a 15 second trick to make a landscape shot more pleasing. It wasn’t meant to be a full color correction.

      I totally admit that I’m different from other photographers and I’m bringing an alternative view to Sony Alpha Lab. I also acknowledge that I don’t know everything. What works for me may not work for everyone and if using a 15% grey card words for someone that’s great. My way is anything but the only way.

      It’s my hope that sharing some tips and tricks that help me will give others an idea or two that inspires them to be creative. I think it’s great when people think outside their comfort zone and try things that are unconventional. It’s a huge step towards developing a personal photography style.


      • Thanks, Monico, for the excellent, thorough response. I think we pretty much agree. I generally shoot a reference on location because it’s free, easy, and it’s often (not always) helpful. At least it gives me a bit more info to work from. But I understand completely where you’re coming from.


      • I’m glad you took my response in the spirit it was intended, Jerry Fiddler.

        I fully understand how my long responses can sound “know-it-all” and that is certainly not my intention.

        I’ve used reference grey cards plenty of times over the years (including on my landscape shoots) and I’ve moved away from them in the last three years or so as my creative vision evolved.

        Here’s a quick example of why I don’t use grey cards as much on a location shoot. Start by clicking this link to an image over on my blog:

        http://monicozphotographyblog.com/portfolio/deb-at-sunset-skyline-drive/

        You can see that this is a portrait of a woman taken from a mountain overlook at sunset. To get some extra color in the shot I used a “cloudy” white balance when I processed the RAW file. To get the woman to match the color of the world I created she was lit with a single flash which had an orange colored gel attached. By using colored light I was able to make the woman blend into the environment more naturally. If I didn’t use the orange gel on the flash she would have looked completely separated and the illusion would be broken. If I used a grey card then the entire scene would look totally odd.

        Here’s another example of a shot where a grey card would have ruined my shot.

        Take a look at this image:

        http://monicozphotographyblog.com/portfolio/attachment/1/

        This is a portrait I took of a young mother and her newborn child (at the clients house). The image looks like it was taken in the morning but the truth is that I shot this at 9:00pm (a full hour after the sun set for the night). I used a huge softbox outside the window with orange gels on the flashes. I also used a 3′ octa-shaped softbox inside with an orange gel (and ND gel to knock the power down) to fill in shadows caused by the main light out the window. All the orange gels were used to create an illusion of morning at the time of capture. Using a grey card I would have ended up with a white balance beyond “tungston” and the entire shot would have been neutral (even with all my orange gels). The color corrected version would have been drab compared to what I had in mind.

        These are just two quick examples of times when I’m not using a grey card to keep my colors 100% accurate. I can supply hundreds more.

        I think that using a grey card is a great start for most people. It’s a truly helpful reference tool for ensuring color accuracy. But as we gain confidence in our techniques (and our skill with software like Photoshop) it’s not uncommon to venture away from grey cards because we want to create our own vision of a shot. When we step away from techniques that can put us all on a level playing field we have an opportunity to rise above the pack.

        Here’s one last idea I’d like to share with you. This is a blog entry I wrote about 4 months ago. This one talks about flash gels and it’s a situation where having a grey card on set might be a huge benefit. Hopefully this one will show that I’m not completely against grey cards in the field.

        http://monicozphotographyblog.com/2012/08/27/different-ways-i-use-flash-gels/

        Thanks again for your comments and I look forward to seeing some of your work!


      • Thanks again for the thoughtful response. I don’t use flash much, and am no longer a pro (I spent a couple of years in the studio, but that was decades ago), but I find your use of gels very appealing. You can see some of my stuff at jfiddler.smugmug.com, if you’re interested.

        As for gray cards, as I said, I find a reference shot to be, at the very least, a good, solid piece of information. I may then choose to ignore it, or I may not. I may use the corrected version or I may not. But, at least I know something more about what the light is doing than I would without it, and I often find it very helpful. Certainly, for somebody who’s not yet highly proficient at color balancing (the vast majority of photogs) it can be a very valuable technique both for learning and for creating.


  3. Jay

    Monico,

    Fantastic Tutorial and information!! This is a great way to get more out of your raw files for sure and I need to use this technique more often :)

    I also don’t usually shoot a white balance card when on the street or anything, only for calibrated light set-ups. Very cool little little tool though for a lens cap!

    Thanks again for sharing and great photos!!!

    Jay



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