6 ways to take better landscape photos

Photography

It’s no secret that travel and photography go together like New York and pizza. So when photography’s a passion, and you have a job that lets you travel freely, you feel like you’ve hit the jackpot. Case in point: JetBlue crewmember and avid photographer Eric Bennett (@bennettfilm), whose work should be titled, “All the places you must see in your lifetime.” From the Painted Hills and Alvord Desert in Oregon to the Northern Lights and countless waterfalls in Iceland, he has traveled to the most beautiful places on Earth.

In honor of national Nature Photography Day, Eric reveals the secrets to taking extraordinary landscape photos.

Trillium Lake, Oregon, photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
Trillium Lake, Oregon; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Find inspiration on Instagram
Through the photographers and friends that I follow on Instagram I have found most of the locations that I have shot or want to shoot in the future. Other locations I have found just while hiking and exploring in areas that look promising.

Lighting is everything
Almost all of my images are taken between sunset and sunrise—when the sun is low on the horizon, you get softer light and better shadows, which give images a nice contrast and better color range. The sky lights up at those hours and can add beautiful texture and colors to the landscape. Ideal lighting starts with “Golden Hour” just an hour or so before sunset and ends after twilight, or “Blue Hour,” after the sun has set and the sky has lost all light and color. For the more ambitious photographers, another opportunity is before the sun comes up, but this time starting with “Blue Hour” and ending with “Golden Hour” before the light gets too harsh and flat.

Death Valley National Park, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
Death Valley National Park, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Create drama with a tripod
I always travel with a tripod, so that I can shoot my images on longer exposures. This causes the motion of water and clouds to drag, giving them a more surreal look as they blur and soften. To add to the dramatic effect, in Photoshop I add contrast using luminosity masks, and dodging and burning, which controls the amount of darkness or brightness. Finally, through blurring, sharpening and more contrast, I add an effect called “Orton,” which creates the dreamy, soft feel you see in my images.

Corona Del Mar, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
Corona Del Mar, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Fill the frame and lead the eyes
In terms of composition, I mainly stick to the rule-of-thirds, except when I center my subject. I’ll get up close to the objects in my foreground, or the ground itself, to make my images feel three-dimensional, which I think helps people to see more details and feel like they’re really there. I always try to balance my composition, filling the frame with an interesting foreground, middle ground and background, so that no single area of the image draws the eyes so much. Finally, I look for leading lines that will guide the viewer’s eye towards the subject of the image.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Maximize your depth of field
Depth of field has everything to do with aperture. If you shoot between f/11 and f/8 you can get a pretty sharp image all the way from the foreground to the background. To increase depth, you can get closer to the objects in your foreground, but this will also cause either the background or the foreground to be blurry as you focus on one or the other. In order to overcome this obstacle, there is a technique called “Focus Stacking,” where you just shoot several different photos focused on different areas of the image and combine all the parts that are in focus, giving you perfect sharpness all throughout the image.

Joshua Tree National Park, California; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
Joshua Tree National Park, California; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Find the right shutter speed for movement
Luminance and movement have to do with how long your shutter is open for. The more time that passes while your camera is taking the photo, the more light will be absorbed by the sensor and the more movement it will record. It’s all about finding that perfect speed in order to get the look you want for whatever is moving in the image. I always tend to shoot water a tad slow so that it has dragged, smooth look to it. But if you shoot it too slow, it will lose all its texture and just become a white mist, which doesn’t add much movement to your image at all. There is no perfect method—it’s just all about finding the balance between what is moving in the scene and how fast you will work your shutter.

El Matador State Beach, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett
El Matador State Beach, CA; photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Eric shoots with a Canon 6D, and for all of his night photography, a Sony a7S. His go-to lens is the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L but carries along a Canon 24-105mm f/4 and a 50mm f/1.8 for good measure.