What makes for a successful or beautiful landscape photograph? Well, there are a lot of factors in play when addressing this question. In this article I will share my thoughts on what I believe are ways to make a pleasing landscape photograph and why I ultimately decided that a tilt-shift lens was the tool I needed to get the results I wanted.
I am fortunate enough to live relatively close to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, Glacier National Park. Granted, I have not seen the GREAT majority of this amazing world, so my scope is fairly limited, but as far as landscape photography goes, Glacier is a paradise. It’s fair to say, I could make the short trip up to the park, point my camera in any general direction and take a pretty good photograph. Glacier makes it easy.
But think about this…just because it is a beautiful landscape, does it make for a beautiful landscape photograph?
We, as landscape photographers, want to capture something that is unique and will catch the eye of our audience. After all, there is no shortage of landscape photographs out there. A lot goes into creating a truly successful photograph. It requires planning, persistence, and a great deal of knowledge. Knowledge about the location as well as the equipment you are using.
As with any art form, there are creative elements as well as technical. Like I always tell my students, “Technical knowledge is creative freedom!” Meaning, once you understand your camera and the equipment you are using, you are free to just go create. You don’t have to worry about messing with the buttons and dials of your camera. You won’t be distracted and miss an opportunity because you are fumbling with the settings.
From the creative perspective, first and foremost, you need to put yourself in front of an interesting scene – ideally when there is good light. Sometimes gorgeous light can make an average scene something special. Light is the difference maker! On top of that, you need to find a composition that works. Personally, finding a good composition is the most challenging and the most fun part of the creative process. Of course, there are several different compositional “rules” or guidelines. In my opinion, the one thing that can set a landscape photograph apart is an interesting foreground.
From a technical standpoint, a successful landscape photograph must meet some basic requirements. I know…I just used the term “requirements” in the context of art. This implies there are rules and rules have no business in art, right? Well, when it comes to things like exposure and focus there’s not much wiggle room here.
A successful landscape photograph needs to be properly exposed with the entire frame in focus, AND it needs to be sharp!
It’s a well-known fact (or maybe not) that we landscape photographers are image quality snobs. For several years my go-to landscape lens was the Canon 17-40mm F/4L. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this lens. My 17-40 and I have been through a lot together. We’ve seen some amazing things and made some beautiful photographs, but it got to a point where I demanded more. The 17-40 lacked the sharpness I desired and had come accustomed to with my prime lenses.
After a ton of research and talking to other photographers, it became evident that the tilt-shift lens had that reputation of being sharp. This is what I was after! However, it was my impression that these lenses were primarily used for architecture. I mean the biggest advantage of a tilt-shift lens was its ability to change perspective. Shifting perspective is precisely how architectural photographers are able to keep their vertical lines vertical. This is a big deal to both the photographer and the architect too. But, does it have a place in landscape photography?
I eventually decided on the Canon TS-E 24mm F/3.5 L II Tilt-Shift lens as my new companion. This decision was based solely on the lens’ reputation for sharpness. Moving to this lens was a big commitment. Not only was it a hefty financial investment, but it forced me to change my workflow. The sharpness of this lens is what initially drew me to it, but I learned the tilt and shift capabilities added a whole new creative dimension.
Something to keep in mind though is that all tilt-shift lenses are manual focus. This is something I was a bit nervous about, but it quickly just became part of my workflow. For the most part I am shooting on a tripod using live view. This is something I did when using an auto focus lens anyway. Now I just make sure to zoom in close with live view and manually focus. Very easy and very accurate.
As the name implies, tilt-shift lenses are capable of both tilting and shifting. To be honest, I really only use the shifting capability, which I will discuss later on.
There are two reasons to use the shift function on this lens. The first is to correct convergence and the second is to create a panorama. I alluded to this earlier when I mentioned architecture photographers wanting to keep their vertical lines vertical. This convergence correction can apply to landscape photography as well.
What do I mean by “convergence”? Convergence is what happens when you are using a wide-angle lens but the camera is not oriented parallel to the subject. For example, let’s say I’m photographing a forest of tall trees. As soon as I pitch my wide-angle lens upward, I’m creating converging lines. See the over-exaggerated example below. You can see how the trees on both sides of the frame are leaning in and converging to the center.
To photograph this properly with a tilt-shift lens you would approach it a little differently. Instead of pointing your camera up towards the top of the trees, make sure your camera is level and parallel with the trees. Then shift the lens up to include the higher parts of the trees and not create that convergence. The vertical lines will then be, well…vertical. Here is an example of just that.
These two photographs were taken from the same exact spot. The first is without shift and the second is with the lens shifted up. There is a significant difference as the verticals are now vertical!
So, you can see how this shift ability can be extremely useful for architecture and real estate photographers, but also how it can benefit landscape photographers!
The second reason to shift in landscape photography is to create seamless panoramas. Using a tilt-shift lens for panoramas causes significantly less distortion because the position of the camera is not moving. The camera is staying stationary as the lens is being shifted while staying on the same plane. This allows you to stitch the photographs together in post-processing without much loss around the edges. It’s an extremely clean and efficient way to photograph landscape panoramas.
The tilt-shift lens rotates on its mount, which allows you to shift vertically or horizontally. So, you can create a 3-shot horizontal or a 3-shot vertical panorama. When photographing the 3 shot series, I always start with the middle (no shift).
It is important to note that the reason to shoot the middle photograph of the panorama first is because this is the configuration you want to use when setting your exposure. When the lens is shifted it restricts the amount of light entering the camera. This means you won’t get an accurate exposure reading from your camera’s meter. It is for this same reason you want to be careful not to shoot your shifted frames at the extremes. If you apply the maximum amount, you will notice a pretty strong vignette on the outermost edge. So, it’s good practice to back off a bit or just crop it out in post processing. The most I ever shift is +2 on each side.
You can control how much shift you apply to the lens by turning the shift knob. There are markings on the lens so you can see how much shift you are applying. These markings make it easy to apply the same amount of shift on both sides.
A horizontal shift can be done in portrait or landscape orientation.
A vertical shift can also be done in portrait or landscape orientation.
I mentioned earlier that I typically only use the shift functionality of the tilt-shift lens. What tilt does is allow you to manipulate the focal plane. By tilting the lens, you are changing the angle of the focal plane in relation to the camera’s sensor. Remember, the mount on the tilt-shift lens can rotate. This means you can tilt the lens up and down and also left to right.
For the most part landscape photographers don’t have a real reason to tilt. One of the common ways to use it is to tilt the lens up. When doing so, there is a narrow line of focus that runs horizontally across the frame giving whatever is in focus an almost miniature appearance. It is a pretty cool effect, but not something useful in landscape photography. Remember at the beginning, one of our “requirements” for a successful landscape photo was that the entire image needed to be in focus.
Where tilt does come into play with landscape photography is when you downward tilt. By using a combination of the tilt and focus you can manipulate your focal plane so that the entire frame is in focus. The obvious question here is…why wouldn’t you just use a smaller aperture to accomplish the same thing? Well, there is a very good answer to this. Using a smaller aperture forces you to use a slower shutter speed to maintain your exposure; and sometimes using a slower shutter speed just isn’t an option. It’s fine if there is nothing in your scene that is moving. BUT there are times on a breezy day that all those beautiful wildflowers in front of you are dancing to the beat of the wind. The only other option is to crank up the ISO. Remember I said at the beginning that us landscape photographers are image quality snobs?? Cranking up the ISO is not an easy thing for me to do as image quality is paramount. I may not want to risk introducing digital noise by increasing the ISO. Being able to achieve maximum depth of field while using a larger aperture (faster shutter speed) could be huge! There is also the added bonus of being able to use a sharper aperture…and of course sharpness is the goal! So by tilting the lens downward, you are able to expand the depth of field because the focal plane becomes more horizonal. More of the scene is in focus. This is pretty cool because now you can still get maximum depth of field AND still use a faster shutter speed.
Alright, to be perfectly honest, I’ve found the technique of tilting down to get maximum depth of field difficult. There is a lot of tilting and then focusing and then focusing and more tilting, etc. There is some fine tuning involved to get it right. It takes practice and it definitely takes patience. When you get it right though, it is glorious! The result is a nice sharp image with the entire frame in focus.
An alternative to tilting is focus stacking. This is a method I use quite frequently with the tilt-shift lens. I use it in situations where I’m creating a panorama and also when I’m taking a single photograph. Remember, this is a very sharp and capable lens without shifting and tilting. It’s a lens where you wouldn’t necessarily need to focus stack to get sharpness. There are just those moments that I know are special. When I know there’s a good chance I’ll be printing the photograph and probably printing it big. Again, I am an image quality snob so I want to make absolutely sure I get the best results possible. Focus stacking is one of the methods I use.
Focus stacking allows me to use a larger aperture, which are typically sharper than f/16 or f/22. I personally like to use an aperture of f/8 or f/11, if possible. Of course, with those apertures it may not be possible to get the depth of field I need to get the entire frame in focus.
This is how I approach a focus stacked panorama with the tilt-shift lens. With focus stacking the idea is that you are taking multiple photographs and focusing at different depths in the frame. For a landscape photograph this can be pretty simple. Take a photograph focusing on the foreground, one on the middle-ground and one on the background. Below is an example. With this one I was extra careful to make sure I captured everything in focus, so I took a couple photographs with different focus points for each image in the panorama.
In the example above, I ended up with two photographs for each of the images in the panorama series. There are a couple things that need to be done now to combine them into one final panoramic photograph. I highly recommend NOT doing any post-process on these individual photographs. Wait until the end when you have a single final image to work with. I use Adobe Lightroom Classic and Adobe Photoshop for my post-processing.
First, we need to deal with the images intended to be focus stacked.
- From Lightroom I export the frames with different focus points to Photoshop as layers.
- In Photoshop I combine the layers into a focus stacked image by first aligning the layers (Edit/Auto- Align Layers) and then combining them using Photoshop’s Auto-Blend feature (Edit/Auto-Blend Layers).
- Next, I merge the layers and save the image back to Lightroom. I do this same process for all three frames of the panorama.
- In Lightroom, I select all the focus stacked images and merge them into a panorama (Photo/Photo Merge/Panorama).
- After the merge is completed, I do all my normal editing in Lightroom.
To recap, I purchased the Canon Tilt-Shift lens because of its reputation for being a sharp lens. I think it is important to mention though, that the purchase was the result of my evolution as a landscape photographer. I’m not going to lie; I’m a pixel peeper and I tend to be over critical when it comes to the sharpness of my photographs.
If you are new to this wonderful art form, please don’t think you need to start off with a tilt-shift lens. Start with what you have. Everyone is on their own journey. I think a lot of times we can get caught up in this web of gear and image quality and we sometimes forget the reason we are doing this. The point is to get out there and connect with nature and the landscape. Our goal should be to capture something that reflects us. Our photographs should be somewhat of a window into who we are.
The images in this gallery were all taken with my tilt shift lens. All are stitched panoramas.