Landscape Travel Photography Basics

In Adventure, Photography, RV, Travel, Tutorial

Shot on my first trip to the Grand Canyon!

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We’re going to be covering a good deal of information in a short amount of time on this one.  Landscape photography isn’t an overly complex subject, however there are a few rules and tips to help you get better landscape shots, and we’ll talk about all of them.  Read the article first, then watch the video, or watch the video first and then read the article.  It’s up to you!  Oh, and by the way, the video as located at the end of the article!  🙂

With the advent of digital imaging, creating amazing images while on the road is available to almost anyone.  But just because you’re using a digital camera doesn’t mean your images are going to be perfect.  Far from it in many cases.  A new Digital SLR doesn’t guarantee amazing images, and fully automatic mode on your point and shoot doesn’t either.  But if you understand a few basics about photographing your travels you’re likely to come away with more great images.

Tripods are the bomb!

Rule number one is extremely simple.  If you want super sharp images, you’re going to need a tripod.  No matter how steady your hands are, shooting landscapes handheld normally leads to out of focus images, or blur in the images if there’s any hand shake.  The simplest way to avoid issues with how sharp your images are is to mount your camera on a tripod.

West fork of Oak Creek Canyon.  Looks great small, but if you blow it up you'll see the mess I made.
West fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Looks great small, but if you blow it up you’ll see the mess I made.

Let me tell you a story of an image in Sedona shot back in 2008.  As some readers might know, I’m a fan of High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR).  In order to create a true HDR image you’ve got to snap off 3 to 5 frames of properly exposed, under exposed, and over exposed images.  In software, Photomatix Pro is my favorite, you merge the images into a single image that contains more dynamic range than any flat photo ever could.  You can create over the top HDRs, or very subtle and realistic ones.  It’s up to you.

For HDR photography you will be layering images together.  That means each exposure had better be perfectly aligned with the others.  If they’re not, you’re going to have problems with your images.

On a hike through the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon I came across a scene that wowed me, and that I’ll never see again as every day is different.  A canyon wall rising up to my right, awesome clouds through the green trees.  Just a perfect scene, and I knew that HDR would work well on the image.  However, I didn’t think about the scene, I just grabbed my camera and fired away hand held.  Mistake.

Given all of the shadows and highlights, the frames of the HDR were extremely different.  And the over exposure (to get detail in the dark areas) was longer than a hand held image should take.  In the end while the image is very pretty on screen, there was so much hand shake going on that printing the image large showed the blurred edges.  A great shot ruined because I didn’t use the tripod that was with me.

So, the most simple rule possible.  For sharp landscape images be sure to use a tripod!

Sunrise at Paw Hole, South Coyote Buttes.  Soft light, interesting sky....yeah, a keeper!
Sunrise at Paw Hole, South Coyote Buttes. Soft light, interesting sky….yeah, a keeper!

The Golden Hours

Photographers refer to the time around sunrise and sunset to be the golden hours.  If you’ve ever sat up for sunrise, you know the warm soft light that comes along with it.  Better yet, if there are some clouds at dawn or dusk you find yourself working with incredible colors, not just the warm light.  Oranges, reds, purples, and more can be found when shooting at these two times of day.

Dawn and dusk provide photographers with some of the most dramatic lighting you could ask for.  So many photos that really make an impact in viewers minds were shot during the golden hours.  But even shooting at these two times of day don’t guarantee a perfect image.

As an example, take a look at the image from Paw Hole.  A gorgeous sunrise with thin whispy clouds.  Now imagine this image this image without that cloud cover, and shooting directly into the sun.  A lot of the drama would be lost for sure.  And my better bet might be to shoot away from the sun in a situation like that, getting the color changes on the western horizon instead!

One great tip for sunrise and sunset photography?  Don’t fixate on just one scene.  Shooting the sun coming up, or the sun going down isn’t everything.  You can also look around yourself to see what the sunset is doing to the rest of the sky.  In the right circumstances, shooting 180 degrees from the sunset may be much more dramatic!

Check out the next two images.  The first was shot mid-day in White Pocket.  Not a cloud in the sky, and super harsh light from the sun.  The second image was shot at the same location months later at sunrise.  Two big factors to image number 2 would be shooting at sunrise, and the incredible clouds adding contrast to the scene.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.
White Pocket with late sun, no clouds, and very little drama for a place that is amazing! I wouldn’t even waste time printing this image.
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
A very similar setup as the first image. But we have the sun rising behind us, providing warm light to the foreground. And we have some perfect clouds too

 Nap All Day Between the Golden Hours

Paw Hole, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
A completely washed out scene, no clouds, no drama at all. This is my first time showing this photo, and I’m using it as a bad example

When you’re not shooting at dawn and dusk, just put your camera away.  The rest of the day is a total waste, and you shouldn’t even bother to break out your camera.  My suggestion?  Nap all day.  That will keep you fresh for sunset photos, and leave you well rested for getting up ridiculously early to photograph at sunrise.

Of course, the above paragraph is entirely a joke.  We all shoot outside of the golden hours, and that’s a good thing.  We can’t ignore the rest of the day.  How else could we possible post photos of our RV’s while traveling during the day?  And how could we ever keep our Instagram queue full for dozens of “likes” every hour?  You are totally allowed to take pictures for the rest of the day, but you should keep a few things in mind…..

High sun during the middle of the day tends to wash scenes out.  During the day the sun will often provide you “challenges.”  But one of the easiest answers is something anyone can do.  Keep the sun at your back.  Let it light a scene for you, but don’t get it in your scene.  Shooting into the sun will blow out your sky, and leave your foreground in the dark.

So, the simple solution for mid-day landscape photography, shoot away from the sun and hope for some clouds!

Shoot in Aperture Priority

Hackberry Canyon
Hackberry Canyon. F/8, ISO 200.

Aperture Priority mode is the setting I use for all of my landscapes.  On most cameras you’ll find an Av or A setting.  That’s aperture priority mode.  Why use it you might ask?  Wouldn’t fully automatic be better, after all it’s automatic and automatic things are great?

If you’re looking to control the depth of field on your images (what’s in focus and what’s out of focus) Aperture Priority is the way to go.  Want to have your subject in focus, but the background out of focus?  You’re going to shoot with your lens as open as you can (f/2.8, f/4, or whatever lowest number your camera and lens allow).  Want to have everything in focus, giving a full depth of field?  In that case you’re going to close the aperture down a little.  Maybe f/8 or f/11.

Aperture controls how wide open your lens is.  You can open it way up allowing light in quicker.  The lower the number, f/1.4, 2.8, etc, the wider the opening of your lens is.  The higher the number, f/22, the narrower your lens opening is.  The numbers are “opposite land” in my opinion.  Small number, big opening, large number, small opening.  When you have a wide open aperture light enters your camera quickly and the exposure time is very fast.  When you have a narrow aperture it takes longer for the light to enter the camera, and is a slower exposure (tripod).

Shoot In RAW

RAW Example
An un-retouched export of the RAW file created when filming this article’s video.

Many cameras today come with the ability to shoot in RAW mode.  And many people who purchase these cameras have no idea what RAW is or why they’d want to shoot in it.  Instead, they see the “Auto” setting and run right to it.  But there are a few good reasons why you should learn about the RAW setting and how it can help you create better travel images.

Edited RAW
A 20 second edit of the RAW file from Lightroom. This might not be to your taste, but just an example of how dramatically you can change the RAW file
  • RAW files are larger, higher quality files than JPEG (which is what your camera’s auto will give you).
  • RAW files are un-retouched by your camera.
  • RAW files leave you more room for editing than JPEGs.

Basically in a nutshell, RAW files are digital negatives.  They’re exactly what your camera captures when you hit the shutter button.  JPEGs are smaller files (good compression) that are edited by your camera at the time you take your shot.  RAW files contain a lot more information about the image you shot, and JPEGs throw away a lot of that information.

Put another way, RAW vs JPEG is like developing your own photos vs dropping your film off at Wal-Mart.  Back in the film days the pros developed their images in dark rooms, allowing themselves to make creative edits in the developing process.  Average photographers would take their film to a local shop or a lab, and hope the developers did a good job.  RAW gives you the power to make more creative decisions in your post processing (editing) than JPEG can ever do for you.

When you make the jump to shooting in RAW you’ll need to learn a little more about post processing.  And fortunately we have a full series on using Adobe’s Lightroom, a program that allows you to not only manage all of your images, but also allows you to easily edit RAW images and get the most out of them.

On the water
I wanted viewers to see the motion of the water, to look into the distance at the rocks, and to move along to the tree.


In this case, I’m not going to throw down a bunch of rules regarding how you choose to compose your image.  In my opinion, composition of the images you take are part of who you are, and not subject to some strict set of rules.  Normally people talk about a foreground, a middle ground, and the background.  Yes, most landscape photos have those 3 components, but I think artistic license plays a big role.

I’ve often been told over the years by customers, commercial clients, and fans that they can always recognize images that I shoot.  Often times I’ll use different angles for images, instead of shooting straight on.  I enjoy getting low and shooting high.  And in some instances that works well, while in others I find myself using a more conventional angle.  In the end though, it’s up to me how I choose to compose, and for your images it’s up to you.

One thing I will note, don’t stick the horizon in the center all the time.  And don’t put your main subject dead center in all of your shots.  That gets a little dull.  Rethink your shots.  Want to highlight the mountain in the distance?  Put it off to the left or the right.  Use the slopes up the mountain to lead your viewer’s eye from one point to the next.  Believe it or not, there is motion in a still photo.  Lead the viewers to the highlight of your image, don’t just drop it dead center.

Be Original

I’ve been visiting the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument for years now.  It is by far one of my favorite locations to photograph in the United States.  The amazing colored sandstone, the remoteness of the location, all goes into what I enjoy about the place.  I’ve photographed in White Pocket, South Coyote Buttes, Wire Pass, the Paria, and more.  And if you look through my portfolio of images you know what’s missing?

“The Wave.”

The Wave, located in North Coyote Buttes has become an icon.  Photographers the world over want to photograph The Wave.  And you can search all over the Internet and find thousands of images of it.  The Wave is beautiful and extremely compelling.  It’s also psychotically over shot, and every image looks like someone else’s image.

Within Coyote Buttes there are other incredible formations.  The place is loaded with crazy rock formations.  You can’t help but find other amazing image opportunities, but as you start looking for unique images from the area I promise you, The Wave will dominate your searches.

What I’m saying is pretty simple.  Be original in your subjects.  Go ahead and visit The Wave, but please look around while you’re there and create your own iconic image.  There’s so much material to work with!

My Wave, Vermillion Cliffs
My Wave, South Coyote Buttes. The formation on the left looks like a wave rolling into shore.


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