There are two goals when photographing landscapes, said Bradley Castañeda, who’s partnered on campaigns with Jeep, REI, Sony, Gore-Tex and La Sportiva, and amassed a prodigious Instagram following. The first is to tell a story — to inspire people to get outdoors, explore and push themselves. The second is to document your surroundings in the most beautiful way possible.
For any landscape photographer, Castañeda said there are five basic tenets to consider. Location is just knowing in advance where to go that has a great composition, be it a lake with a perfect reflection or a spot that has great light. Second is timing — understanding that a lot of landscape scenes are “right place, right time” situations, you need to allocate enough time to get there.
Weather and patience come next. “As photographers, we’re not just going to shoot when the skies are clear and the sun is out,” Castañeda said. There are benefits to shooting when the weather’s not great. Clouds will give you a better chance of getting beautiful long sun rays, and rain is going to make the foliage shine brighter. A lot of great landscape shots were taken right after or before storms. And if you want a certain type of weather — be prepared to wait. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll set up my camera and just wait. You’re waiting for the clouds to move, to have that light come through perfectly, or you’re waiting for a sunset.”
Last is gear. You’ll need to grab a pro-grade camera system and a sturdy tripod. Castañeda suggested using a heavy metal one, instead of lightweight carbon fiber model, because it’ll stay still when shooting longer exposures in wind or other precarious conditions (e.g., shooting in the middle of a stream).
Neutral density filters and a circular polarizer are also vital, Castañeda said. A circular polarizer cuts down the glare and reflections (like polarized sunglasses). The ND filter stops down your camera’s acting exposure: “Let’s say I’m shooting a waterfall and the sun is at high noon,” said Castañeda. “If I didn’t have this ND filter, my shot would be completely blown out because the sun is shining on the waterfall. Now, if I take the ND filter, which is going to darken the image, and I shoot at a 30-second exposure, it will actually expose the image properly.” Paired with that tripod, this gear will enable you to photograph sharp landscapes, motion blur and much more.
Techniques to Master
How to Better Your Approach
“In landscape photography, you’re going to be shooting multiple exposures — at least I do — so I shoot bracketed exposures,” said Castañeda. Bracketing photography means you’re capturing the same shot multiple times, using different exposures for each shot. The goal with this technique, similar to HDR, is to take multiple photographs of the same subject and then compose them together. The result is a more dynamic shot. “What you’re doing is taking a photograph with a neutral exposure and then you’re shooting two shots that have a higher exposure and two shots that have a lower or longer exposure.” Exactly what those exposures will be, depends on the situation.
As for how to improve your landscape’s composition, there are several techniques to consider. The first, and most basic, focuses on symmetry and, as Castañeda said, filling the frame with “tons of interesting shit.” Symmetrical composition, like having a road straight down the middle of your shot, is really popular on Instagram because it’s naturally pleasing to the eye. Castañeda said it’s actually a very good introduction to composition and photography.
The next technique is the rule of thirds. “Basically, you break the image up into thirds — horizontally and vertically,” said Castañeda. The thirds create a grid over the photo (iPhone’s “grid” option); you want to place your subject on any of the intersecting points of that grid. “The idea behind that is, you’re positioning your subject in an interesting manner and it tells a story of the environment around your subject,” he explained. “And then the brain leads the eye to the subject because it’s on this intersect of the third.”
The most advanced composition technique is the golden ratio. If you break a landscape shot into the rule of thirds, Castañeda explained, concentric circles guide your eye from the far lower right edge of the frame, through to the upper left corner, and then back to the upper left third. “Essentially you’re telling a story through this image by guiding the eye from an element to an element that’s deeper into the frame.” With this technique, you can use an object in the foreground to coax the eye deeper into the shot.
Finally, post-production plays a huge role in Castañeda’s landscape photography. “When I envision a photograph, it’s going to involve post-processing,” he said. “Whether that means adjusting my shadows and highlights, or picking up my saturation — which is something I’m really big into — to capture colors.”
Bracketed photography, because it pushes more dynamic colors, helps lighten the load of post-production. Castañeda said he uses Lightroom, and occasionally Photoshop, to edit. “One thing technically I try to watch out for is any type of color noise — when you push the saturation too far.” It degrades the image and looks fake.