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  • Cheryl Tan

Developing a Workflow: How to Get the Most out of Your Landscape/Cityscape Photography

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Written by Benjamin Suttmeier (Tech360.tv Community Creator)

 

In the world of landscape photography, it’s quite common to reach a point of stagnation. You find yourself doing the same things again and again, and eventually you realize that you aren’t really sure how to make further improvements.


I’ve been there before myself, and one of the major turning points in the quality of my images came when I began taking a more academic approach to landscape photography. I began reevaluating everything that I had previously learned. I began experimenting with new techniques both in-camera and in post-processing. Over time I created a workflow that is still the basis for how I shoot each photo in my portfolio.


My exact workflow may not be for everyone, but hopefully you can try it for yourself and see what you like and what you don’t. Some steps require nothing but effort and others require some amount of technical skills. Ultimately, there is still plenty of room for experimentation. Using a workflow does not mean sticking to the exact same process for each shoot. A workflow should add a set of crucial steps to your shooting, and I believe that the following steps will give you something to build on to escape stagnation.


What Gear You’ll Need


Before we start, let’s talk briefly about gear requirements.


The photography community can seem intimidating at times for new photographers. There is a never-ending revolving door of new equipment hitting the market, and you are often led to believe that the gear you have is inferior.


Yes, there are some minimum requirements for the sake of this article. Fortunately, the barriers to entry are not exceedingly high. Here is what you’ll need:

  • A mirrorless or DSLR camera – Comparing camera models is an endless debate that is best left for another day. As long as you own a camera that allows you to use manual controls, you’ll be fine.

  • A sturdy tripod – In landscape photography, a tripod is a gamechanger and should not be neglected. Tripods allow you to add a range of creative elements to your landscape photos like soft skies, soft water, car trails, and stars. On top of that, you’ll need a tripod if you want to avoid loads of noise in your low-light shots.

Without a tripod, you’ll need to increase ISO in low light conditions. This will result in a grainy image. Another common theme of many of the photos in my portfolio is the use of blending. This is a post-processing technique that allows you to combine the best elements of multiple photos into a single image. In order to blend photos seamlessly, it’s important for the camera to remain absolutely still throughout the duration of a shoot. That means using a tripod. I’ll discuss this in more detail later in the article.

  • A wide-angle lens – Landscapes are often shot at angles wide enough to capture an open scene. Almost any wide-angle lens is fine for beginners.

  • A remote shutter release – I use a remote whenever my camera is on a tripod. It’s important for the camera to remain absolutely still, especially during long exposures, and this is an extra precaution I take in order make sure I don’t accidentally move the camera when I snap a photo. It isn’t necessary to use a remote, but they are cheap accessories that can be a major help.

Scouting & Research


I don’t think there is a single professional landscape photographer in the world who doesn’t scout locations. This is easily one of the biggest factors separating amateurs from the pros.


Whereas most hobbyist photographers walk around and snap photos as they go, I would argue that it is better to walk away from a shoot with one or two excellent images than an album of decent ones.


Landscape photographers are remembered by their best images. Scouting and researching may seem tedious, but if you produce just one excellent image per week, you’ll have a portfolio of 52 excellent images at the end of the year. It isn’t uncommon for a professional to have a portfolio of that size.


But how exactly do you scout a location? For me, there are two main methods that should be used together.

  • Scouting in advance – I keep an Excel file, as well as a lot of loose notes, about places that I would like to visit. These can be places near where I live or places in other parts of the world. Every time I see something interesting, I’ll jot it down. When I plan a trip, I already have a list of locations to photograph. I’ll organize my trip around that list. It’s also wise to consider possible obstacles you could face. Certain shots are well-known and don’t require too much advanced planning. Others require you to shoot from a carpark, staircase, or some other area that you are likely to know nothing about. This is where advanced scouting can really make a difference.

Both of these photos were taken in Bangkok from parking garages. It took a total of five combined attempts to sneak past the guards, so repeated scouting and some persistence were required. I use sites like Instagram, 500px, and Google Images to gather ideas on locations. If I anticipate problems, I’ll check the website Location Scout or simply reach out to other photographers directly. They don’t always get back to me, but most of the time the photography community is a pretty welcoming and helpful crowd.

  • Scouting on Location –I’ve screwed myself many times by not allowing enough time to scout a location in person. If you can afford the time, arrive to each shoot an hour or two in advance, take sample shots, and settle on what you think is the best composition. There are many elements that can make a photograph great, but composition will always be the most important. In this department, some extra work can often go a very long way. Visiting the same locations more than once is also a great way to pick up new information each time, evaluate your results, and correct whatever needs improvement.

Composing Your Shot


For me, composing your shot is all part of the scouting process. Again, composition is king when it comes to all the elements that make a great photograph.


But what makes a composition compelling? Often, it’s more than simply thinking about the rule of thirds.


It’s hard to say exactly what makes a great composition, but studying photos that you love and figuring out what you love about them is a good start.


I generally try to include multiple interesting and creative elements in my photos. Here is a list of some of the elements that I consider each time I scout locations:

  • Compelling Subject – Without an interesting subject in your shot, your image will often fail to impress a viewer. In landscape photography, a nice sky is usually not enough to create a compelling photograph.

  • Leading Lines – These are lines that lead a viewer’s eye towards your subject. They can be natural or artificial and are only limited by your imagination. Things like car trails, roads, fences, and footprints all work. I’ve even seen photographers curling up leaves and sticking them in front of the lens to create lines.


Car trails leading the viewer’s eye to the subject: the Sky Tower in Auckland, NZ

  • Reflections – Always be on the lookout for reflection opportunities. Even windows and puddles are fair game.

  • Soft Water/Skies – Using long exposures to blur water or clouds can add an interesting element to your photos. You rarely see these elements in a beginner’s work, so this is one way to take your photos to another level.

  • Depth – Images that have multiple layers in the foreground, midground, and background give a sense of depth to a photograph.

Both of these images have a lot of layers to them. This creates a sense of depth. In addition, the first image features a soft sky, soft water, and flowers in the foreground that frame the subject and lead the viewer’s eye towards the Marina Bay Sands.

  • Framing with Foreground Elements – Much like leading lines, using foreground elements to guide the viewer’s eye into your subject can make a subtle, yet significant difference. Blurred leaves in the foreground of a photo are one example and can be used similarly to vignettes.

  • Flares – Capturing lights with a narrow aperture like f/16 adds length to the flares produced. Additionally, if you catch the sun hitting the edge of a mountain or building, consider narrowing your aperture to produce a dramatic flare.

I adjusted my aperture to f/16 to catch this sun flare just as the rising sun hit the edge of the mountain.


Prioritizing Light


In landscape photography, you only get two good windows for shooting each day: around sunrise and sunset. It is a photographer’s responsibility to prioritize shooting around these windows. Daylight hours may be good for some things, but I rarely use them for shooting unless I’m simply scouting a new location.


Most photographers are familiar with the golden hour, but in landscape and cityscape photography, there are other lighting periods that may be superior. This depends on each person’s individual preference.

Golden hour, blue hour, and full dark at the Marina Bay Sands

During golden hour, the sunlight sits low on the horizon and lends a gold cast to a scene. In landscape photography, this is a good period to shoot a vibrant sky and also get richer tones on your scene. However, if you’re shooting a skyline or some other cityscape, it will be a challenge to pick up some of the artificial lights that can sometimes enhance the image. These could be city lights, car trails, or something else.


To be clear, golden hour is a great time to shoot. However, many beginners consider it to be the hands down winner, and this is not always the case.


Blue hour is another great time to shoot, especially when capturing cityscapes. During this period, the location of the sun below the horizon provides a blue cast to the sky before or after a scene becomes fully dark.


Blue hour is a nice tradeoff between golden hour and full dark. The sky may not be quite as vibrant as during golden hour, but you still get some interesting detail and color. As it is darker, city lights also start to become more visible, which can really improve a photo.


Keep in mind that in Singapore and in other places situated on the equator, blue hour may only last for about ten minutes. It’s important to be set up and ready when the time comes.


Full dark is generally not my preferred option when shooting landscapes or cityscapes. However, there are some things you can take advantage of in the darkness that are more difficult to achieve when a scene is lit up.


City lights become even more prominent than during blue hour, and it is also easier to shoot long exposures without the use of ND filters. This can mean smoothing out water, capturing car trails, or even shooting stars.


But what if there was a way to combine all the best elements of each lighting period? In a single image, this is impossible. But as I’ve hinted at before, there is an editing technique called blending that allows us to do exactly that. I’ll go into more detail when discussing post-processing in a bit.


Note: I use an app called Photopills, which provides me with detailed information about all the different lighting periods in my location. This is an invaluable tool when it comes to planning out shoots.


In-Camera Techniques and Settings


Before getting into editing, let’s discuss some of the technical details of shooting the photos themselves.


At this point, we’ve scouted a location online and found something we really like. Then we arrive an hour before sunset to set up the camera and tripod, and settle on the perfect composition. Now, the light will start to change drastically as the sun goes down, and we are ready to capture it.


For the next hour or so, I won’t touch the tripod or change the camera’s position at all. Again, I’d rather walk away with one excellent photo than a bunch of decent ones, so most of the time I am solely focused on getting that one shot.

But how exactly do I handle the shooting itself?


There are three techniques that I use consistently to ensure I get the best results possible.

  • Manual Focus – While a scene is still lit up, using autofocus can be fine. However, once the light begins to dim, autofocus can have a very difficult time finding a point to focus on. If you’re in a city and want to use autofocus, make sure to set a focus point on a light area of the photo so that the camera is able to find something to latch onto. However, it’s usually best (and safest) to use manual focus to avoid any issues that autofocus can cause. Most lenses have a mark at which they are focused to infinity. This is usually a good option to ensure that everything in your scene is in focus. If your lens doesn’t have an infinity point, you’ll need to play around with the focus yourself to make sure everything is sharp. I don’t want to go into too much detail about focus in this article, but tools like focus peaking and focus magnifier can be useful in these situations.

  • Aperture Priority Mode – I almost always use aperture priority mode when shooting landscapes and cityscapes. This should come as good news for beginners, as it is significantly easier than shooting in manual mode. There is a general rule in photography that an aperture of f/8 is the “sweet spot” on your lens, at which everything in a scene will be sufficiently sharp. This rule isn’t 100% true for each lens, but you will still get a good, sharp result by setting your aperture to f/8. Since we are in aperture priority mode, the camera will determine the shutter speed itself based on the amount of light present. This is usually fine, but of course we can always make 1-2 stop adjustments to the aperture if we wish to increase or decrease the shutter speed. This shouldn’t affect the sharpness too drastically in most cases. When it comes to landscapes, the only times I stray from f/8 are when I need to avoid or achieve certain effects of long exposures. Negative effects can include blurry trees caused by wind or blurry people. Positive effects can include car trails, soft skies, and soft water. In addition, there is usually little reason to increase ISO beyond its minimum value as the camera is on a tripod. This will result in additional noise. So for the most part, I put the camera on aperture priority mode, set the aperture to f/8, and forget it. Occasionally I’ll make adjustments to produce a longer or shorter shutter speed, but the important thing to take away is that I do not use manual mode and constantly fidget with settings as the lighting changes.

  • Exposure brackets – Have you ever taken a photo where one part looked fantastic and another part looked horrible? Maybe the sky was perfectly exposed, but the foreground was completely dark. Or perhaps the foreground looked great, but the sky was white and blown-out. These are known as situations of high dynamic range, where the difference between the darkest darks and the lightest lights in a scene is too wide for the camera to properly capture. The best solution to this problem is to use exposure brackets. Essentially, this means that your camera will snap 3, 5, or 7 separate photos that are all exposed differently. By default, one exposure will be neutral, having an exposure composition or exposure value of 0. This basically means that the camera considers this to be the correct exposure. The camera will also capture additional images. If you are shooting a set of three brackets, you’ll get exposure values of -1, 0, and +1. The first is one stop underexposed (darker), the second is neutral, and the third is one stop overexposed (lighter). Note: In a set of five brackets, you have -2, -1, 0, +1, and +2. In a set of seven, you’ll have -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, and +3. You rarely need photos that are three stops under- or over-exposed, but sometimes very bright lights need to be toned down drastically and that is where a super-dark exposure can come in handy.

A set of three brackets – The first is one stop underexposed (-1), the second is neutral (0), and the last is one stop overexposed (+1). We can combine these photos in Photoshop using layers and layer masks to create a properly exposed final image, as seen in the following video.


Again, brackets are especially useful in scenes with a high dynamic range. In a series of brackets, perhaps one image can be used to properly expose the dark areas (shadows) and another to capture the light areas (highlights). With some basic post-processing knowledge or with HDR software, you can easily combine multiple photos to get a properly-exposed final image.

Post-Processing


Post processing is an important part of almost every landscape photographer’s workflow. While using programs like Photoshop is still frowned upon in genres like photojournalism, it is ultimately up to the individual artist whether they want to process their photos or not.


When it comes to landscape and cityscape photography, I believe you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least take the time to try and understand Photoshop. Knowing where it can help you and where it can’t will give you a more complete understanding of photography as a whole, and simply rejecting any form of editing is narrow-minded and misguided in my opinion.


The limits to Photoshop are endless, and most criticisms stem from artists using it to misrepresent their work. Color and contrast adjustments, noise reduction, and object removal are all widely-accepted these days, but of course it’s also possible to completely alter what was initially produced in-camera. It is up to you to decide how far to go with your editing, but ultimately, I believe it’s important not to misrepresent what you are doing.

With that said, I often use a technique called blending to combine different moments from the same scene. This could mean combining a sunset sky with the more prominent city lights of a blue hour. Or it could mean combining a starry sky with a foreground that can only be captured while there is still sunlight.


It would be extremely difficult to write an article explaining each technique used in my post-processing workflow. However, I will leave you with some examples of how blending can vastly improve your final product.


The first image captures a well-exposed sky during golden hour. After pulling up the shadows, this was combined with a the city lights from a late blue hour to create the final image.


For a quick look at a simple blending technique, check out the following video.


If you would like to learn more about the editing process and blending, it’s important to understand how to manipulate layers and layer masks in Photoshop. The principles involved can range from beginner to advanced, and they do take some time to become familiar with.


If you would like to explore additional resources, please feel free to attend my upcoming workshop where I will discuss Photoshop techniques, including blending, in much more detail.

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