Landscape Photography Tutorial – Graduated Filters

Landscape Photography Tutorial – Graduated Filters

I ducked out yesterday evening for a bit of landscape photography to a field near where I live and got this shot of a foot path that cuts straight through the field.  I have used this location before but it was when the wheat was just about to be cut and I came away with a different photo – fields can change quite quickly at this time of year.  Instead of doing a quick run down of the shot I thought I would try and go a bit more in to how I typically take a landscape photo.  I won’t go too much into composition, in this case the shot jumped straight out at me but it needed a bit of tweaking to get how I wanted it to look.

Landscape Photography Tutorial

So the finished image is above but I took about 6 frames before until I got the shot how I wanted it, so I will post those and talk about the steps I took to get the final shot.  One of the most critical tools for good landscape photography is the graduated filter (or grads).  These are usually square or rectangular pieces of glass/plastic/resin with a dark half and a clear half.  The degree of graduation can vary from slight (1-stop) to more pronounced (3-stops) and also the transition can be soft – good for a mixed uneven horizon (trees or mountains), or hard – good for flat horizons (say a sea).  You need an adapter ring to screw into the lens and a holder to attach the grad to the lens.  I use the Lee system but started with Hitech’s, cokins are also good for starting out.  If you get into it the chances are you will end up getting the Lee system.  What grads do is balance the light sky with the relatively dark land, your brain does this automatically but cameras aren’t that clever – yet!  If you look in my landscape photography gallery I doubt there is one shot in there taken without some form of graduated filter.

So to once you have found where you are looking to take a photo and have a composition in mind, you have selected your lens, in this case I was using the Canon 16-35 L on a 5DmkII and placed it on the tripod ready for action.  I generally use the lowest ISO possible (100 on this occasion) and an aperture of about f/16, these aren’t set in stone but usually good starting points.  I usually take an exposure to see what the camera thinks I should be doing in terms of shutter speed so with my camera on Av and aperture set to f/16 the camera spits out the image below

Landscape Photography tutorial

Pretty poo by all accounts, but quite harsh conditions for the camera.  Firstly there is a huge ball of bright light in the frame (I quite like including the sun in shot as we don’t see much of it) so the camera has thought “my word this is bright, don’t need to let much light in” so it has underexposed most of the scene.  Now this was taken with a shutter speed of 1/15 (ISO and aperture are going to remain constant) so at this point I say I want more light on the land, I’m not too worried about the sky getting brighter at this point.  So with the camera on manual now I adjust the shutter to stay open a bit longer, actually twice as long, doubling the amount of light (1 stop) so set it to 1/8 and we come up with the following:

Landscape Photography tutorial

A bit better but still a little under for what I am going for so I increase the shutter by a stop again to 1/4 of a second

Landscape Photography tutorial

Now I have the land how I want it but the sky is now very blown out so we need to get out the graduated filters.  I attached a hard edged Lee 3-stop neutral density graduated filter (quite a mouthful!) I went for the hard edged one as the horizon was flat enough and the sun was getting quite low.

Landscape Photography tutorial

The difference the grads make are massive as you can see.  However now the scene looks a little too bright, I like the light on the top of the wheat to the left but want the overall scene a little darker, this also tends to saturate the colours a little more so I go back to 1/8

Landscape Photography tutorial

I tweak a little more and settle on 1/5.  This is an image I am now happy with and can take into lightroom and make some adjustments.  As this isn’t a post processing tutorial I will only quickly outline the final steps to get from the image below to the final one at the start of the post.  This is where lightrooms develop history is great for reviewing the changes.  I initially cropped in slightly and adjusted the white balance to add a little warmth.  I added a slight vignette and darkened the sky a little with LR’s graduated tool.  I then added a little light to the path and the tops of the grass and took into photoshop.  In photoshop I did a little more dodging and burning and a few contrast tweaks.  I had a little lens flare near the sun that I wanted to calm down with the healing brush (very important if you are using grad to make sure they are completely clean and dust free to reduce and flare).  I also healed the jet trail, I don’t mind these but there is always someone who points them out in the anonymous forums so I thought I would jump the gun and get rid of it.  I also cloned out a telegraph pole in the distance.

Landscape Photography tutorial

All in my opinion fairly little adjustments that gives me an image I am happy with.  The final settings for the image were ISO100, f/16, 1/5 at 16mm.
I hope you can take something from this brief tutorial and hope it inspires you to get out and take some photos!

Landscape photography tutorial

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