Landscape photography is all about planning, preparation, and patience.
Learning how to better plan landscape photos is a very important first step to better results.
For this article I decided to reveal every technique I use on a daily basis. To give it even more credibility I decided to collaborate with a friend of mine, Kristijan Cizerl, who’s a (severe) weather enthusiast and a landscape photographer, to go in detail with this very important factor in landscape photography.
Choosing the location of your next photographic endeavour is the step one when you plan landscape photos.
First, you need to decide between staying within the borders of your country or going abroad. If you’re a relative beginner I highly recommend shooting mostly local for the first couple of years.
By exploring your country, you’ll discover just how much beauty it harbours, especially if you’re lucky enough to find a spot no one has ever photographer before.
Most of my photos are taken within 30-minute drive from where I live, and virtually none came out perfect the first time. I’ve been to every location at least a couple of times, explored every corner of it and considered as many compositions as possible in order to take a photo I was happy with.
Shooting locally is the best way to hone your photographic skills. This way you can easily come back and improve your photos. By doing so you will learn much faster. And did I mention that it is much cheaper, than flying halfway across the Earth?
I know what it feels like to get hands on your first camera. You’re excited, you want to travel the world and take awe-inspiring photos. Everyone wants that. And even if you spend all your money on expensive trips, your photos won’t look anywhere as good as those you see on the internet, until you learn enough landscape photography.
Discovering new locations
If you want to succeed as a landscape photographer, you should be discovering new locations or at least shooting different variations of the same scenery as other photographers.
You can always check other local photographers for an inspiration and copying their work when you’re still learning, although being creative and finding compositions no one’s every seen before will spark an interest in people.
My method of finding new locations is intertwined with my love for hiking and exploring.
I start by checking Instagram profiles of local photographers, businesses, or tourist-information centres and if nothing catches my attention, I turn to Google Maps.
There, I look for lakes, rivers or streams, plains that could potentially offer great view down onto valley, large fields of wheat, sunflowers, rapeseed, etc.
Once I decide on the location of my next shoot, I drive or hike there a few hours before sunrise to thoroughly explore the area and take test photos. Oftentimes I take the home-run photos on the way to my location, when I unexpectedly come across a colourful micro-location with an astonishing view.
2. Check the weather forecast
Weather is one of the key factors when you plan landscape photos. There is no “good” or “bad” weather, there’s only the “appropriate” and “inappropriate” weather for your goal, because every atmospheric condition can be utilised with some creativity and vision.
The easiest way to do your weather research is to grab your app of choice for weather forecast. I like using an online website Meteologix, because it packs several forecast charts, each of them offering a wide variety of parameters.
Clouds govern the light conditions and are hence the main weather factor in landscape photography.
Most landscape photographers chase colourful clouds that add a lot more interest to their photographs.
Clouds can classified by height of cloud base as High-, Mid-, and Low-level. The most important to landscape photography are the High-level clouds that are typically thin and white in appearance, but can appear in a magnificent array of colours when the sun is low on the horizon.
Some low Mid-cloud coverage can also add to the interest of the sky, but stay away from the days with high percentage of Low- and even Mid-clouds coverage, if you’re going for a fiery sunrise. High cloud coverage is usually the best for moody photos.
My way of checking the weather forecast for clouds is:
Meteologix > Forecast > I choose Central Europe Super HD or Arome, the first being a very detailed forecast model, and the second a less detailed but a lot more frequently updated – both are for Europe (where I come from), so make sure to find the best model for yourself, if you’re from different continent.
In the parameter selection, I choose All > Clouds, sunshine, short wave radiation and then check all four parameters: Cloud coverage (%), Low clouds coverage (%), Middle clouds coverage (%), and High clouds coverage (%) around the time I want to take my photo.
However, weather forecast models are still far from being perfected, thus always take them with a grain of salt. Once you get some experience with weather charts and see the difference between the forecast and the reality, you’ll be able to predict their mistakes.
What I found is that it’s better to look at trends than the absolute forecast. For example, if the forecast predicts cloudy night and clear skies in the morning, it might easily miss by a couple of hours, and completely mess up your morning shoot, by being cloudy.
One last advice for shooting mornings. The cloud coverage on the east (east of you) is more important that the clouds right above you.
Fog doesn’t affect the light conditions as drastically as clouds do. It serves different purpose in landscape photography – it adds interest, mood, or make photos more dramatic.
It is a desirable element in landscape photos, but is significantly harder to predict than cloud coverage, because it is usually more localized and dependant on the microlocations. To be able to successfully predict morning fog, you need to have a deeper understanding of what is is, what types of fog exist, and under which conditions it appears.
Although I have some basic understanding of how and when fog is formed, I asked Kristijan Cizerl, landscape photographer and severe weather enthusiast, to help me with this subject.
In contrast with clouds, which are formed by water vapour condensation upon adiabatic elevations and cooling, the fog is formed when air is adiabatically cooled by the cold ground.
Fog consists of tiny often undercooled cloud droplets or ice crystals.
Technically speaking, fog appears when the air temperature drops below the dew point.
There are multiple types of fog, here are discussed the 3 most important to landscape photography.
During the night when there is no external source of heat, the Sun, the air cools and the ground starts radiating heat, effectively cooling itself. During cloudy nights, the clouds act as a barrier for heat escaping into the space. This is the reason why clear nights and mornings are colder, and are perfect catalysts for the morning fog.
Light wind that accompanies cold nights is a fog killer, though, which is why fog often appears only in hollows or valleys, where there’s little to no wind.
To better predict the foggy conditions for your next morning shoot check the following parameters:
- Cloud coverage for the entire night and morning – you are looking for a clear night
- High humidity
- Low temperatures
- Water bodies, aka lakes – they are often located in valleys where there is an absence of wind, they also provide provide high humidity
Advection fog is produced when air that is warmer and more moist than the ground surface moves over the ground surface.
Unlike radiation fog, advection fog can occur when even when it’s windy.
It’s the most common in fall or early winter when the warm air from the sea moves over the cooled continent. The air quickly cools, which forms tens of meters of a thick fog layer.
This is type of fog is usually well-predicted by the forecast models at least a few days in advance, making them easy to prepare for.
In such conditions you can move onto a higher vantage point, ideally at least 500-1000m above the sea level.
Upslope or hill fog occurs when sloping terrain lifts air, cooling it adiabatically to its dew point and saturation. Upslope fog may be viewed as either a stratus cloud or fog, depending on the point of reference of the observer.
Wind can also be a determining factor when you plan landscape photos.
For shooting reflections in water bodies, little to no wind is a must. The same goes for fog, for the reasons explained earlier.
In contrast, strong (upper layer) wind is very important for long exposures. The faster the clouds move, the stronger cloud trails they create.
3. Double-check your gear
Always prepare all your gear and clothes the previous morning or at least a few hours before you leave.
I suggest you create your own checklist, which should look something like this:
This is a rather obvious one, but even cameras are forgotten sometimes. You should also clean sensor if needed, and attach the lens you expect to use, so you are ready should an unexpected opportunity show up.
Make sure to pack every lens you deem useful. Also make sure that they are safely stored in your camera bag, with no smudges in the front and rear glass, and caps attached to protect the glass.
Tripod is key to razor-sharp landscape photos. It can easily be forgotten, as it is usually separated from your camera bag.
Make sure that there’s a fresh battery in your camera, and at least one spare in your bag or in you inner pocket if the weather is cold.
The same applies to memory cards. Check that the one in your camera works and that you have at least one spare in your camera bag.
When the days are hot it’s easy to forget that the nights can be very cold, especially in spring or fall temperatures can plummet during the night. Landscape photography often requires a lot of waiting = staying in one spot with minimal movement.
Dress up warmly. Take with you at least one more layer than you think you’d need. I recommend you also take spare socks and shoes, as you can easily get wet chasing the perfect shot.
The weather is fickle in the spring and fall, and the last thing you’d want is to get caught by a rain shower, which can damage your gear.
Also be wary of quickly-changing weather of the mountains. In just a few short minutes, a hot summer day can turn into a thunderstorm.
4. Pick the Right Time of Day and Year
There is no one rule for when you should take your photos. The best way to determine the optimal light conditions for you photo is to experiment. The perfect light is a very complex matter and can’t be predicted all that well, especially with little to no experience.
Landscape photos are usually taken around sunrise and sunset, the time of the day called “Golden Hour”. You should visit your location at least once during both, walk around, try several frames, preferably analyze the photos at home, to determine where you need the light to come from.
You need to realize that unless you live on the equator the sun’s position moves throughout the year, for example: on March 17 at 4.30 pm the sun won’t be on the same location as on May 17 at 4.30 pm.
The easiest way to determine the exact Sun position is to use an app. My app of choice is an online tool SunCalc, which also lets you check the Sun’s location through the entire year.
5. Plan Enough Time
Everyone has heard of the Blue and Golden hour, which are reckoned to offer the optimal light for landscape photos. Although this is generally true, it doesn’t mean you have to arrive 5 minutes before the best light.
Don’t limit yourself with these time frames and give yourself plenty of time to arrive early, pay attention to the changing light (it changes a lot more rapidly than you’d might expect), and enjoy your view and the nature that surrounds you.
A great photo can also be taken in the middle of the day, especially with the use of a quality CPL.
If you give yourself enough time, you can take your sweet time to breathe-in your surroundings and get acclimated to the scenery. I guarantee you’ll take much better photos that way, in contrast, to jumping out of a still moving car and starting shooting right away.
To successfully plan landscape photos a bunch of factors must be considered – the more, the better.
Although all this might seem like a lot to take in at first, especially in addition to all the camera settings you’re learning, it will soon become the second nature to your photography preparations.
To learn to even better plan landscape photos, you can read more Tips that are proven to improve your photos.
Matic is a photographer and avid teacher of photography from Slovenia. In 2020, he founded Photutorial.com, website/blog dedicated to teaching photography, writing honest and helpful reviews, and inspiring photographers.