How To Approach Digital Landscape Photography for Better Images

by Dec 6, 2022Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How To Approach Digital Landscape Photography for Better Images

When I first made the switch from shooting film (usually slide film) to digital photography, I read some excellent advice about the difference. That advice re-defined my approach to digital landscape photography and I’m still following it today. Whilst this is something I do automatically, I’m aware others might find it valuable, so I want to share it in this short article.

What is this Approach and Why is it Important?

Quite simply, in my approach there are two stages to digital landscape photography. There is the capture stage where we capture the image on a digital camera. Then there is an editing stage where we produce the finished image. I’m sure this isn’t news to you, but please read on.

Previously, when I shot mainly slide film, I had no option but to capture the image in camera. The slide that I shot was the finished image.

What’s interesting is that this approach to photography is still proclaimed by many as the correct approach. You only need to read a few photography forums to see people advising new photographers to “get it right in camera”. But to me this is the opposite of how to shoot great landscape photos and it’s needlessly limiting results.

I’ve also been guilty of dispensing this advice myself, without realising that what I consider to be “getting it right”, may be different to what someone else considers correct. In fact, many of my digital landscape captures wouldn’t be recognised as good images.

Let’s look at an example.

Digital Landscape Photography Example

Here you can see two versions of the same image. The image on the left is the original digital capture whilst the image on the right has been processed.

digital landscape photography example illustrating my approach

I shot this image handheld with a micro four thirds camera (the first release of the Olympus EM5). It was a 1/15 second exposure at ISO400. At the time 1/15 second was about the limit I could confidently handhold with this camera, but I needed to keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise. Today we have great noise reduction tools like DeepPRIME in DxO PhotoLab and Topaz DeNoise AI. But back then, you needed to work with the camera to capture the best results.

The next “trick” I used was to overexpose the image slightly, which is why it looks a little washed out. This opens the shadow areas of the image. It’s the deep shadows on the EM5 where the noise is but this camera is much better at recovering highlights.

Something else that was important was trying to find a good composition, because that’s what would make the final image.

In short, this to me is getting it right in camera. I’ve produced a low contrast image, with few deep shadows, lots of detail, no blown highlights, and a composition I like. The result is that the image looks nothing like the dark, contrasty scene at the time. It’s also an image that wouldn’t merit a second glance from many people.

Now compare this to the finished image. This is much more how I saw the finished photo in my minds eye when I took it.

Editing is Essential in Digital Landscape Photography

Many photographers reading this would call what I’ve done to produce the finished image cheating. But to me it’s part of the process of photography, not a distinct phase. I’ve used the tools available to produced what I visualise. This is why digital landscape photography requires a different approach. If I had been shooting this image using slide film, I wouldn’t have done this and instead, tried to produce a finished image in camera.

Film photography imposes different restrictions on what we can do and therefore how we work. What we must not do is impose those same restrictions when we shoot landscapes digitally. Unfortunately, old advice that was historically correct, is often treated as if it must be obeyed like the law. We need to be mindful of new developments and how those can change our approach.

Consider this next landscape photo which I shot about 12 months ago.

Misty morning at Portmerion

This was taken with a Panasonic G9 at ISO1600. I’m now happy to use higher ISO settings because the cameras are better and because of the software I have for processing. I then didn’t overexpose to open the shadows and avoid noise because the shadows seem to hold more detail with this camera. I also didn’t try to prevent the sky from blowing out by using filters. What I did is attempt to capture an image that would help me during the editing stage.

Both the image capture and image editing stages are equally important, and they MUST WORK TOGETHER if you are to achieve the best results.

What Was The Photography Advice I Read?

Back at the start of this article, I said that I read some advice that set my approach to digital landscape photography. That advice was quite simply to “treat the capture of the image as gathering the raw materials to produce the final artwork”. When shooting landscapes digitally that’s all that you should be trying to do. You want a capture that allows you the greatest flexibility to produce a quality, finished photo in post processing.

As a Final Thought

We are now seeing new developments in photo editing with AI becoming more popular. Some of these products unlock new possibilities, some of which I’ve mentioned. But then there are others that can take over and handle the processing automatically for you. The AI software then becomes the artist, and the photographer need only capture the image.

Is this right or wrong?

It doesn’t matter because it’s not a question with a definitive answer. You do what makes you happy because photography is all about enjoying the creative process.

I hope this article has given you food for thought. Now read this next article. It has some simple, practical tips you can follow to shoot your best landscape photography.

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