(Editor’s Note: This landscape photography how-to from professional photographer Mike Mezeul II is part of a monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer.)
To turn an ordinary landscape photo into something truly epic, you have to push yourself creatively and push the elements around you. Here are some of my top photography tips for those who are ready to step outside their comfort zone in order to create stunning shots.
However, before getting started, please remember that your safety and respect for the outdoors always need to be the top consideration when venturing out to shoot.
#1 The Importance of Scouting
Scouting is one of the most essential aspects to successful landscape photography, and if you take the time, it will pay off. Anybody can walk up to a mountain and take a photograph. However, there are so many intricate details within the landscape in front of the mountain to discover, such as leading lines, repeating patterns, and contrasting colors. If you just go up and simply start taking photos, chances are you’re going to miss those details and you’re not going to capture the best photo you can get. Take the time to scout the environment and the landscape and get a feel for the scene you’re working with; there’s no doubt you’re going to notice some of the smaller details that make up your composition and make an image more powerful.
Take the light and the time of the day into account when you scout. Landscapes tend to create their own weather environments and atmospheres, so if you scout a location before a shoot, you’ll understand more about how the weather works there. For instance, generally speaking, timing is crucial when capturing mountains. Avoid shooting at mid-day when there is poor light, and you lose early morning fog that floats through the mountain range. Instead, later in the afternoon is optimal, because you might have clouds building up on the tops of peaks, creating more dramatic looks to the sky.
#2 Don’t Get Stuck in a Wide-Angle Mindset
Obviously, wide-angles are a “go-to” lens for landscape photography, but you should also consider bringing along a mid-zoom or telephoto lens. When I travel, I carry either a 70-200mm f/2.8 or 200-500mm f/5.6 lens because using a longer lens allows me to capture all the hidden details that exist within the landscape. For example, if you have a clear, but rather boring, bluebird sky, a 70-200mm will allow you to home in on small intricate details that may give you really cool patterns, textures, or lines. There have been numerous occasions in my career when I’ve been thankful to have my longer lens on-hand to capture one-of-a-kind moments. During one assignment when I was shooting wildfires, using the 70-200mm enabled me to capture a surreal shot of smoke and light moving together through the nooks in the trees. Another time I used a 500mm to capture a mountain in Patagonia that is only visible a few times a year when the clouds part.
#3 Understanding Light Is Huge
There are good times in the day to shoot landscapes and obviously not-so-good times. Use these not-so-good times to scout and formulate a few different options for what you would like to shoot within the given scene. My first option, which I like to call my “bucket-list unicorn shot,” is when there is color and texture in the sky. However, in cases when I don’t have the sky or light that I want, I also have several back-up options: one for perfect light, one for night sky, and one for small details. Understanding the way light works in the environment, and what looks good in landscape photographs will help you find your final image. For example, if you are shooting black and white, you need stronger contrast within your light. On the other hand, if you are shooting color, you want nice, soft warm light coming in.
#4 Night Sky Photography Tips
When shooting at night, keep in mind a simple rule of thumb that: “the darker the sky, the better.” For instance, it’s essential to avoid the light pollution from city lights. Additionally, clouds are a double-edged sword: you want them during sunset, but not at night. It’s also important to plan around the moon phases if you are trying to take night sky images. For example, try to plan for a new moon so that the light from the moon does not drown out any nearby stars or planets.
One of the most common questions I get is around focusing your camera at night. I like to either use a distant light source or take advantage of the zoom in and out function on my LCD screen, which allows me to dial in on a specific star or planet to a pinpoint. There also the old trick of finding infinity in the daylight and taping this off with some tape on your lens.
While you can shoot a night sky from pretty much anywhere, I always try to tie that night sky in with a unique subject that has a storytelling element in it. A wide-angle lens that has a low aperture, like an f/2.8 or f/4, is extremely beneficial because your sensor can let in more light, therefore making your night sky that much more visible. I have been using either a prime or the Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 lens because it’s a combination of fast aperture, wide angle of view, and minimal distortion so stars look like pinpoints.
#5 Trust Your Kit. Respect Nature
You have to go where the shot is, not where you think the shot should be. In order to get those shots, sometimes danger might be present. Storms and volcanoes are exciting, powerful, and dramatic aspects of nature; however, there’s no doubt that I’ve put myself in uncomfortable positions to capture these remarkable moments. You might be freezing, drenched in rain, or feeling your leg hairs singed by lava. Sometimes you have to push yourself and your gear to the limits in order to experience those scenes and those elements to create great images. The most important thing is to have respect for what you’re looking at. I have been photographing tornadoes for almost 20-ish years and every time I go out, I still get nervous because I have a full understanding of what I’m looking at and I know if I don’t respect it, it will easily kill me. Having respect for nature will allow you to err on the side of caution while pushing yourself. No shot is worth losing your life or putting others in danger.
In addition to knowing your own limits, you also need to know your gear, and trust what your kit is capable of. I have full confidence in the weather sealing on all my cameras because I know for a fact that I’ve pushed them well beyond the limits. The Nikon Z7 II is simply the best camera in the industry for photographing landscapes. Its capabilities exceed expectations, with an incredible dynamic range and 5-axis IBIS that complements the amazing 45-megapixel high resolution sensor, the camera allows me to capture the most intricate and sharpest of details in the wildest of landscapes. Between the quality of the file and the rugged weatherproof build, I confidently know it will perform time and time again in the harshest environments.
#6 Patience Is Key
Patience is key, and it pays off. There have been so many sunsets and other moments I have missed due to being impatient. However, if you scout your scene, wait for the perfect moment, and keep going back until you get that perfect shot, I can promise that you will capture incredible images. Once you’ve done the research, perfected the lighting, selected your gear, and planned your shoot the last missing piece in the puzzle is patience and perseverance.
About Mike Mezeul II (Mezz-ooh-ell 2)
Mike is a photographer and photojournalist known for the epic images of nature’s most astounding creations – from landscapes to professional sports, natural disasters, concerts, air-to-air aerial photography and more. Mike can be found travelling the world, but you can visit his website at https://www.mikemezphotography.com/about for more info on workshops or to get prints. Mike will also be hosting a Reddit AMA on July 29th on r/photography.