How to Photograph Landscapes With a Tripod: Step by Step Guide
If you’re lazy and can’t be bothered carrying things, then you’ve probably wondered once or twice about whether you should take a tripod with you on your next landscape photography shoot. As much as you might want to leave it at home, a tripod will help you immensely when shooting in-field, unless you’re some kind of magician at standing super still with your camera handheld.
Landscape photographers use tripods for the purpose of reducing camera shake and motion blur, which improves the chance of capturing a sharp image. This is particularly useful when you’re faced with difficult lighting, playing with long exposure techniques, creating HDR images, using filters, photographing panoramas, or shooting at night.
If you have a love/hate relationship with your three-legged friend, then this article is for you. You’ll learn all about how to photograph landscapes with a tripod, from planning your shoot to how to set one up while finding the best angle and composition for your shots.
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Plan Your Shoot
Before you start shooting, you need to figure out exactly what you want to shoot. Having your camera attached to the tripod will limit your movements and restrict your ability to see compositions in the surrounding landscape.
As such, when you arrive at your location, keep your tripod packed away or standing off to the side while you take a few moments to plan what is going to be in your frame.
Step #1. Scout for Compositions
The thing about planning a landscape photography trip is that a lot of it can be done ahead of time. You can research the destination from the comfort of your own home and even scout for locations online. If you need a little help with this step, then check out my article on How to Plan a Landscape Photography Shoot.
On the day of the shoot, arrive early so that you’ll have enough time to look around and to visualise the shot that you want to achieve. Walk around and take note of objects in the foreground or particular scenes that appeal to your senses.
Step #2. Choose a Subject
As you’re looking around at the environment, keep an eye out for anything that could make for a strong subject. Ideally, it should stand out whilst not appearing to be completely out of place.
Your subject might be a single object, such as a rock or a stick. It could be your friend or even yourself. You might even have multiple subjects within the same frame, such as a mountain and a lake.
Step #3. Visualise the Composition
Once you’ve selected a subject, explore the environment for other compositional elements that you might be able to use. Keep an eye out for patterns, textures, lines, curves, shapes and colours that might strengthen your composition.
Start arranging these compositional elements in your mind’s eye so that they highlight or guide the viewer’s eye towards the subject. Assess how your subject interacts with or is affected by the background.
If the composition doesn’t look right, try viewing the subject from different angles, Walk around, bend down and stretch up in a bid to get a range of alternative perspectives.
Remember that tripod that you lugged all the way to the location and then set aside as you were visualising the composition? You didn’t bring it along for nothing. Now is the time to give your tripod a little bit of action.
Step #4. Determine the Angle
As you move around, you’ll begin to come up with a rough composition in your head. This will help you to figure out where you want your camera to be when you take your shot.
Take a few handheld test shots to help find the perfect angle from which you’d like to shoot.
Step #5. Attach Your Camera to the Tripod
When the best angle for your shot reveals itself, grab your tripod and place it into position. Adjust it for height and secure your camera to the tripod head.
You can then manoeuvre the tripod head further until the camera is sitting at the perfect angle and height for your shot.
I’m not going to go too much here into camera settings for landscape photography. These are just the main settings to adjust when using your camera with a tripod, which will improve your workflow out in-field and help you to take a sharper image.
Step #6. Pick a Shooting Mode
For landscape photography in daylight, you can choose to shoot in Aperture priority or Manual mode. If you have an aperture and ISO that you want to stick to, then selecting Aperture priority will mean that your camera automatically selects the best shutter speed to use.
On the other hand, if you want to have full control of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO, then set the shooting mode to Manual.
For landscape photography at night, you should either set the shooting mode to Manual or Bulb.
Step #7. Adjust the White Balance
If you’re using a digital camera and shooting in RAW, then you won’t necessarily have to adjust the white balance. Set it to Auto or one of the presets, such as Cloudy or Incandescent.
If you’re after a particular style, then set the white balance so that it’s approximately what you’re looking for in terms of the level of coolness or warmth. Don’t worry if it’s not exact; you can always alter the white balance later on during post-processing.
Step #8. Focus the Lens
The next step is to set the focus on your lens. In general, you’ll want the most important part of your subject to be the sharpest, so as to draw the viewer’s eye towards it.
Look through your camera’s viewfinder or turn on Live View. Carefully adjust the focusing ring on your lens until the focus is achieved.
Step #9. Select the Aperture
Now it’s time to select the aperture. When choosing which aperture value to use, think of how much of the scene you would you like to have in focus.
Opening the aperture to a lower value such as f/1.4 or f/2.8 will mean that much of the frame will be blurred whereas closing the aperture to a higher value such as f/16 will keep much of the frame in focus.
If you open the aperture, then you’ll be allowing a lot more light to enter and land on your camera’s sensor. Closing the aperture means that less light will be able to travel through, so you might end up with a darker exposure. This is where the ISO and shutter speed come into play.
Step #10. Set Your ISO and Shutter Speed
Unless you’re aiming for creative effects using the ISO, it’s best to select the lowest possible setting for your camera so as to minimise digital noise. Given that your camera is mounted to a tripod, you’ll have the benefit of choosing an ISO lower than what you would normally use if you were to shoot handheld. This will help immensely when it comes to producing sharp and noise-free images.
Depending on the conditions, if you are shooting in daylight and there is nothing moving in your frame, then ISO 100 is a good starting point.
If there are branches or leaves moving in the wind, then you will need to adjust the shutter speed to ensure that everything is as sharp as possible while increasing the ISO in order to correct the exposure.
For night photography, start at around ISO 1600 and adjust it accordingly.
In terms of the shutter speed, you should set the value according to the type of effect that you are hoping to achieve. If you would like to blur the motion of water in waterfall photography, then you’ll need a longer exposure. Simply dial in a slower shutter speed, such as 5 seconds. As your camera is mounted to a tripod, it will (hopefully) be still for the entire duration that the shutter is open.
To freeze the motion, opt for a faster shutter speed, such as 1/125th of a second or 1/160th of a second.
Remember to adjust your ISO to balance the exposure or to achieve the effect that you want. There may be times when the scene is overexposed when shooting in daylight. For example, this may be the case if you’re trying to use a lower aperture such as f/2.8 with a slow shutter speed of 10 seconds. In situations such as this, consider using neutral density filters to help balance the exposure.
Now it’s time to take some pictures! This is where you can start to get really creative with your composition, the lighting and using your tripod. By this stage, you’ll probably be happy that you’ve brought it along!
Step #11: Work With the Lighting
When shooting out in-field, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the light is constantly changing. You can make the most of this by capturing images as the conditions evolve and transform in front of you.
After you’ve taken a few shots, review your images in order to determine what needs to be improved. This will help you to adjust your camera settings accordingly.
Step #12: Try Different Angles
As you’re shooting, don’t get stuck taking photos of a single angle or composition. It is important that you remember to move around.
When you’ve exhausted a single angle, take the camera off the tripod and hold it up as you look through the viewfinder or at the Live View screen. As soon as you see a new angle that you like, place the tripod into the new position and attach your camera to the tripod head. This way, you’ll end up with different shots of the scene that you can review later on at home to decide which one you like the most.
Repeat this step until you’ve achieved the range of images that you are looking for.
Tips for Reducing Camera Shake When Using a Tripod
Despite following all of the steps above to a tee, there may be times when you’ll still get a little bit of blur while shooting on a tripod. This could be due to a few different factors. To help you with troubleshooting, here are a few tips for reducing camera shake when using a tripod in landscape photography:
Sometimes, you might not be aware that you’re touching your tripod while you’re shooting. Even brushing the tripod with a piece of clothing can affect its stability and set off a series of vibrations. As such, step back and make sure that you don’t bump into your tripod during the shoot.
Ensure that the tripod is stable. The best way to set it up is with two tripod legs parallel to one another in front of you, while one tripod leg points backwards. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, so that the back leg of the tripod is between your feet.
While the shutter is open, stand still and limit your movements. Vibrations can travel up from the ground through the tripod legs, increasing the possibility of camera-shake.
Turn off vibration reduction or image stabilisation on your camera or lens. You’ll really only need to use this feature when you’re shooting handheld. The mechanism that is involved when this feature is turned on can create small vibrations that reverberate through your tripod and contribute to camera-shake.
Use a remote shutter release. You can also set a shutter delay of two seconds, which is normally long enough after pressing the button on your camera for small vibrations to pass by the time the shutter opens.
TL;DR: How Do I Use a Tripod for Landscape Photography?
There’s a lot more to photographing landscapes than plonking your tripod down and firing away. Before you even attach your camera to the tripod head, make sure to plan your shoot by arriving early to scout for compositions. Look for a strong subject and visualise the composition in your mind. View the subject from different angles before attaching your camera to the tripod and taking some test shots.
One benefit of using a tripod is the ability to shoot at a lower ISO than you would when shooting handheld. This will go a long way in terms of reducing noise, meaning that you’ll be able to capture sharper images. Adjust your camera settings so that you can make the most of this.
With outdoor photography, the lighting constantly fluctuates. As such, keep taking photos as the conditions change. When you’ve exhausted a particular angle, move around to find another.
Finally, when using a tripod, be aware of different factors that may cause vibrations. These can lead to unintentional camera movement or shake, so they are best avoided if you want to head home with sharper landscape images.
Have you got any other tips for using a tripod in landscape photography? Share your suggestions in the comments below!