Excluding the sky from your landscape shots may sound like photographic blasphemy, but there are times when all the interest is within the land itself
Landscape photography can take many forms, with multiple approaches in terms of the way you organise elements within the frame using composition and viewpoint. This is one of the reasons why landscape photography can be so interesting before you even begin to think about different techniques. With multiple variables ranging from camera settings to lens choice to framing and much more, a slight shift in technique can create a hugely different end result.
Flexibility and the willingness to go against the grain can be key attributes in landscape photography – shooting isn’t like painting by numbers. For instance, there are times when including the sky in landscape shots isn’t the best option, and this can be due to several factors. But the most common are a boring featureless sky and when the sky simply isn’t an important element of the scene and ultimately detracts from it.
There’s no set recipe for when you should fill the frame with a landscape, only you can decide when to do that based on your creative vision and, of course, what best suits the location you’re shooting. Some frame-filling landscapes, such as streams and waterfalls are often shot with wide-angle lenses for more dramatic compositions.
Other landscapes, such as woodland and shooting into valleys or mountainous scenes, are often best shot with a telephoto lens. For valleys or mountainous scenes, a telephoto lens makes it easier to achieve that all-important frame-filling composition, but you still have to select the correct focal length to get the best out of the scene – too much or too little simply won’t work.
On the morning this image was taken, the sky was virtually clear and the foreground was uninteresting when shot at 35mm. But by using a telephoto lens, it was possible to isolate a section of the valley below and incorporate the mist into the composition for a more intimate and atmospheric shot.
In the images above, taken of the same scene, the image on the left was taken at 145mm and conforms to the rule-of-thirds, but this has made the composition too wide. By zooming in to 200mm and disregarding the rule-of-thirds, the composition still works and the image is much more interesting, especially without the houses visible.
1 Set up and compose
Attach your camera to a tripod and compose the shot using Live View and the Virtual Horizon to ensure the camera is level. It’s most important that the camera is level on the horizontal axis, while with the vertical it depends entirely on the composition and the location. For this scene, a 70-200mm lens was used so the camera and lens were attached to the tripod using the lens tripod collar. If you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens, using a tripod plate on the bottom of the camera or an L-bracket is ideal.
2 Check lens settings
When shooting on a tripod it’s important to switch off Image Stabilisation (IS) because leaving it on can cause blur in images because the lens is expecting movement; lenses sometimes move elements and in-body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) shifts the sensor despite the camera being completely still, which can cause blur. At this stage, also decide whether you’d prefer to use autofocus or focus manually. For this shot, autofocus was used because it was the quickest and easiest option.
3 Adjust camera settings
Attach any filters as required, which may include a polarising filter, ND filter and even an ND grad if exposure is uneven in the frame. Set the camera to aperture priority at f/11 – f/16 with ISO set to 100. The camera will take care of the shutter speed but you may need to use exposure compensation to lighten or darken the exposure manually using the histogram as a guide. For this scene, Evaluative metering was used and -0.3 exposure compensation was used to darken the exposure slightly.
4 Focus and shoot
Focusing is just as important as any other type of landscape shot, and the way you go about it will always be down to personal preference. I normally manually focus at the hyperfocal distance of my lens, or guestimate the focus distance if a scene is fairly shallow, such as when shooting streams and waterfalls. For frame-filling landscapes taken with a telephoto lens, you can often simply use autofocus with the central AF point active because this will, in many but not all situations, capture a large depth-of-field.
When to fill the frame with the landscape
1 When shooting streams and waterfalls
Streams and waterfalls are often tucked away in valleys and/or have hills behind them, so including the sky can be impossible. Plus, shooting these locations is often best on overcast days for soft and even light, so in this situation, the sky would be featureless and boring even if you could include it.
2 When shooting woodland
Woodland photography is all about being amongst the trees, focusing on their interesting shapes and forms and, of course, the light and weather conditions. While it’s worth including the sky when it works with your composition, many intimate woodland scenes simply don’t require the inclusion of the sky.
3 When focusing on shape and form
This image is all about the backlight highlighting the curved road and the contours of the landscape, so filling the frame and excluding the sky further accentuates these elements. This not only creates a stronger composition but also keeps attention focused on only the most interesting part of the scene.
4 When capturing details in the landscape
While not strictly a landscape in the classical sense, focusing on details, patterns and textures in landscapes is an important part of the genre. When capturing details, filling the frame often creates a stronger composition whereas a sky would detract from it by requiring a much wider shot where the detail is diminished.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles