Personally, I prefer landscape photography with a phone camera and I will explain why later. However, I have a great deal of admiration for those photographers who carry large amounts of equipment on landscape photography shoots. Let’s conservatively break-down an average setup by item weight:
Consider The Weight Saved By Using A Phone Camera:
- Camera: 1.5Kg
- Extra Batteries: 250grams
- Lenses 2.5Kg
- Sturdy Tripod: 2.5Kg
- Filters: 0.5Kg
- Bag: 1.5Kg
The average cell phone weighs around 6.4 oz (180 grams).
This totals 8.75Kg just in essential photography equipment, if you are hiking you then have to add water, food, protective clothing, sun protection, and other essential items. It is quite clear that there is a considerable amount of weight involved.
But, do we really need all of this equipment to get good landscape photographs. The answer really depends on what you will be using the pictures for. If you want good quality prints bigger than A4/letter size, then you will need a dedicated camera with a larger image sensor like a mirrorless or DSLR. However, if you want pictures to use online for Instagram or for your Blog then smartphone pictures are very acceptable.
If you have a smartphone camera with more than 12MP you will be able to print out larger than A4. But, for this article, I will assume 12MP as this is what my smartphone has.
Now, let’s see the difference a smartphone has to the weight we have to carry:
- Camera: 280 grams
- Lens: 0 grams
- Sturdy Tripod: 1Kg
- Filters: 250 grams
- Power Bank: 250 grams
This smartphone camera setup weighs 1.78Kg, this includes a full-size sturdy tripod that will enable us to compose our pictures with the smartphone attached to the tripod and is sturdy enough to prevent camera shake. the lens is already attached to the camera and we don’t need a bag as the smartphone can go into a pocket as normal. We will also need an external charger to keep our smartphone charged on the go.
To get the most from our smartphone camera we are going to have to use the manual/pro settings. These settings offer more control over how our pictures will look. Manual settings will give us control over the ISO, Shutter Speed and focus.
The ISO gives us control over how sensitive the sensor is to light. A low ISO will produce sharper less noisy images and is suitable for brighter conditions. A higher ISO is suitable for lower light situations but will add noise (grain) to the image. Because we will usually be using a tripod we will have more choices to use lower ISO. This is because we can compensate by using a slower shutter speed.
As the name suggests, the shutter speed gives us control of how long the camera shutter is open and letting light through to the sensor. In brighter conditions, higher shutter speeds will be required and in darker conditions, lower shutter speeds will be required.
Exposure is controlled by balancing the ISO and the Shutter Speed. We need to ensure that our exposure is not too dark (underexposed) or too light (overexposed). We can see the effect that changing the ISO and shutter speed has immediately on the smartphone screen and so can judge exposure correctly. The picture should look natural neither too bright or too dark.
When taking landscape pictures we most often want to set the focus to infinity. Typically there will be a focus slider that will go from macro to infinity. Macro is usually represented as a flower and infinity mountains. Setting the focus to infinity will mean that everything from a few yards away right into the distance will be in focus, this is exactly what we want.
We need to make sure that the picture size is set the maximum regardless of what aspect this is. In my smartphone, the maximum is 12 MP in the 4/3 aspect ratio. This is not the aspect that I want my final picture to be but I can change that later.
Also, make sure you are using the JPEG and RAW image formats. The RAW image format collects a lot more information about the subject than the JPEG image format. We can use this additional information later in post-production to change our images to really bring out the features in the picture. for now, just make sure you are shooting RAW.
Traditional cameras can have an external shutter release, this is a device plugged into the camera that can take a photo without having to press any buttons on the camera. This is very important to prevent camera shake, which can ruin our pictures.
It’s likely that as smartphone photographers, we won’t have an external shutter release. To get around this we can use the timer in our smartphone camera. Once we set the timer and compose our picture we can fire the timer by touching the screen or pressing the camera shutter button, the camera will count down and then take the picture a few seconds later, perfect!
In landscape photography we should get used to using a tripod, we often need to use longer exposures than are possible to hand hold. To get the best possible quality picture we want the ISO to be as low as possible, this can often mean a longer exposure.
A tripod also gives a greater opportunity to compose our pictures, it’s not something we want to rush. If we are waiting for a sunrise, we want to be setup and ready to go before the sun rises. We want to make a few final adjustments and capture what we were looking for,
A good quality tripod will prevent the camera from shaking during a long exposure, even in breezy conditions.
I would highly recommend practicing manual settings with a tripod before heading to the mountain trails.
So now we have our manual setting down, we are shooting in RAW and using a tripod like it’s an extension of our own body. Now I want to talk about composition and what makes a great picture.
In landscape photography, we need to consider three zones; the foreground, the mid-ground, and the background. Often when you see landscape pictures people just focus on one of these aspects, you get cool a shot of mountains in the background but little thought has gone into the foreground or middle ground. We really want all of these areas to gel together, one should lead the eye into the next area. In this way, the whole picture flows together and makes a beautiful scene.
I was recently out taking landscape pictures with a friend of mine, let’s call him Pete. Pete was quite new to landscape photography, so I explained about the rule-of-thirds and the same thing I just mentioned about the different aspects of the picture.
A few weeks later I met Pete and he said he now is constantly looking for pictures, everywhere he goes he tries to compose images in his mind. This is what you need to do, you need to start looking for pictures everywhere. See how you can compose pictures by looking at different things when you are walking around or sitting in the park having your lunch. You need to develop a photographers eye for composition.
Rule of Thirds
Your smartphone camera should have the option to turn a 3×3 grid, this will be in the camera settings. The grid breaks up the composition into thirds, The idea is to get away from putting subjects right in the middle of the picture. We should move the main subject of the picture to one of the four points where the grids cross. This produces a more pleasing picture an enables some background features to be captured.
Like all rules in photography, they are often broken, so once we understand the purpose of the grid, turn it off. It is relatively quick to lean the rule-of-thirds and it should not consume our pictures.
Lighting can make a huge difference in the impact of our picture. Taking pictures at midday produces very little interest in terms of shadows. It can make a landscape look quite plain. In an ideal situation we should look to blue and golden hours to take our landscape pictures.
The Blue Hour
This is the hour before sunrise on a morning and an hour after sunrise on an evening. the light takes on a bluish tint, as it is scattered by the particles in the atmosphere. The blue hour provides a very interesting time to take pictures, adding a cooling feel with soft shadows.
The Golden Hour
More commonly known this is the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise. Obviously, this gives us the opportunity to catch some amazing sunrises and sunsets but there is a golden glow to light during this time that gives everything a very rich glow. This can be particularly beautiful in landscape photography. It is highly recommended to get up early and get out well before sunrise, so you can see the changes in the light between these two periods.
I mentioned earlier that we should be capturing RAW images because this image type captures a lot more information that you will get from a JPEG and it will enable us to manipulate the RAW image to get the desired result we want. This process is commonly known as post-production.
Final Prep Routine
Before we actually take our killer landscape picture, there are a few final preparations that we need to do to make sure we don’t ruin our picture.
1. Slow Down
Landscape pictures should not be rushed, you should have gotten to the location in plenty of time to get set up. So, now is the time to slow down and start taking your time. Every step from this point on needs to be deliberate and controlled.
2. Check The Self-Timer
Make sure that you have the self-timer turned on and set to the correct period. I usually use two seconds.
3. Clean The Lens
I have had so many pictures spoiled because I didn’t clean the lens before taking the picture. Now is the time to give your lens a final clean, use a lens brush and give the lens a few quick swipes to remove any dust, moisture or bugs.
4. Check The Composition
Recheck the composition just to make sure that the camera has not moved.
5. Capture the Picture
Now you just have to wait a few seconds for the light to be just right, then gently press the shutter. The timer will count down and then capture your picture.
Post Production of RAW Images
The most widely used post-production software for photography is Adobe Lightroom. The downside of this is that it is quite expensive particularly for smartphone photographers who will mostly be using pictures for personal use.
I have found a free alternative called Raw Therapee, while it does not have all the features of Lightroom, it is more than capable of producing good quality for post-production needs and it is cross-platform, so suitable for Mac and PC.
We need to transfer the RAW image files from the smartphone memory to our computer. Typically this is done with a USB cable but also utilities like Dropbox are ideal too.
The RAW images will look very flat (unsaturated), my typical post-processing workflow goes something like this:
- Increase Shadows
- Reduce Highlights
- Increase image contrast
- Increase image saturation
- Adjust image exposure
- Sharpen image a little
I then move onto working on specific areas like the sky or some feature I want to highlight. I will use a gradient just on the area I want to affect and adjust the settings to add more saturation or change the exposure to suit.
Once you have done this a few times you will notice your own routine and it will become much quicker to complete your images to the desired result.
If you decide that you want to use Adobe Lightroom rather than a free alternative you also get the opportunity to use presets. These are settings that other more experienced photographers have produced that you can drop into Lightroom. You simply select the preset you to apply to your picture from a drop-down list and voila, your post-production editing is done and you have a professional looking picture, maybe! Of course, the picture still needs to be a good composition and be technically good.
Presets are available to download free, but if you want really good quality presets with that professional touch, you will need to buy them. They usually don’t cost much and you typically get a bunch of different presets to suit different types of pictures.
Picture Editing Apps
What if you decide that you don’t want to use desktop software, what options are there for post-production on our smartphone?
There are several very good apps we could use including the Adobe Lightroom CC App, which makes it very quick and easy to modify our pictures. That Lightroom CC App uses a selection of sliders to adjust the main picture settings. The Lightroom is available for both Android and IOS and is free,
VSCO is another very popular app for picture editing, which has advanced features and presets. A lot of people on Instagram seem to use this image editing app and it is available for Android and IOS.
There are many other picture editing apps out there and it is just a case of finding one that suits how you prefer to work.
So I have discussed using your smartphone for landscape photography and identified the limitations based on the capability of your smartphone camera sensor.
I explained about manual settings and how each of the settings changes the quality and exposure of the picture. We then looked at shooting Raw images and using a tripod for more stability.
We then looked at composure and how we should consider the rule of thirds, but more importantly, I introduced the concept of foreground, mid-ground and background zones. I provided a couple of example images that highlighted this technique. By the way, the answer to the question was: The Lavender in the foreground leads the eye to the tree in the mid-ground and then on to the hills in the background. I’m sure that you managed to work out why this picture worked so well.
I then discussed lighting and the golden and blue hour, which are magic times for photographers.
The next section was the Final Prep Routine, five steps that are critical to taking good landscape pictures.
Finally, I discussed the post-production of RAW image files. I identified that Adobe Lightroom was the most popular post-production tool for photographers, but also identified a free alternative. I also introduced the concept of presets, where you can use other photographers settings and apply them to your pictures.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and I hope you are inspired to go out and try some of the techniques I have talked about. Landscape Photography can be very rewarding and if your own a smartphone you already have most of the equipment you need. Go for it! See you in the next article.