Ever wondered what makes an absolutely stunning landscape image? Is it contrast? Or is it the extensive depth of field or the sharpness that extends from one corner of the image to the other? Or is the resolution of the image? Or maybe something more complicated like extensive post-processing?
Well, the thing about photography and especially landscape photography, is that your eyes see something completely different to what the camera sensor records. Your eyes continuously adjusts for the dynamic range across the scene. So it sees a much more contrasty image compared to what the camera captures in a single frame. Additionally, when your eyes move across the scene, it continuously adjusts focus. Therefore the brain records a much larger depth of field than is possible in a single frame.
So, you have to plan extensively before you ever press the shutter release button. And then after the image has been made, you will have to do some extensive post-processing to bring the image up to what you saw with your own eyes.
You need to repeat these steps:
Choose the Right Aperture
A landscape image needs to have a large depth of field. Most lenses are at their sharpest when you stop them down to f/8. If the lens is of very high optical quality pushing the f-stop down even further can produce even sharper results.
Choose the Right Lens
When I use the phrase right lens, what I mean is the right optical quality. For the purpose of shooting landscape any camera will do. But a cheap quality lens will not. To find out which is the sharpest lens for your camera visit DxOMark. Use their camera – lens combination drop down to figure out which lens you should buy for your camera body for the optimum performance. Though this is not necessary for the hobbyist photographer, if you wish to print big, you will want to know which camera – lens combination gives you the best sharpness.
Expose for the Highlights
Always aim to expose for the highlights. If you expose for the highlights you will be able to achieve a higher dynamic range and retain details in the highlights. The shadows can always be pushed in post-processing, as these days, most good mirrorless and DSLR cameras have high workable ISOs. But if you expose for the shadows, you retain details better in these areas, but you risk blowing your highlights.
Shoot at the Extended ISO Below the Base ISO
An alternative technique is to shoot at the extended ISO below the base ISO. This will produce at least one stop less noise compared to when you shoot with the base ISO and produce much cleaner RAW files without having done any post-processing.
Use a Handheld Light Meter
Fred Archer and Ansel Adams developed one of the finest techniques of exposure estimation known to today's photographers – the Zone system. While the Zone System is widely used and revered, it is not an easy technique to follow. At least not for beginner photographers. The best alternative that I suggest is to use a hand-held light meter. A hand-held light meter gives an accurate reading based on about 1˚ of the frame. Thus, it is more precise than even the spot meter on your camera.
Get familiar with Lightroom Presets
Lightroom Presets are not a one-click solution to a finished photograph, but they can help you streamline and simplify your workflow or achieve a specific look, like vintage or black and white. Every preset is usually meant as a starting point. You will always have to fine-tune the basic settings, especially Color-Temperature, Exposure and the Blacks and Whites under the 'Basic' panel.