Go Wide and Deep
The lens you use makes all the difference
Despite the title of this tip, I am not going to go into any great detail here about how to analyze the next play while watching football.
The wide means that you should use a wide-angle lens. The deep means that you should have your aperture set to get maximum depth of field.
Let's talk some more about why these two elements are important in landscape photography.
A Wide-Angle Review
Let's take a moment to refresh. In a compact camera, the lens is at its wide angle setting when you have not used the zoom. All compact camera lenses revert to their wide angle position when you turn the power off.
In the world of SLR lenses, the length of the lens (and hence the amount of zoom it produces) is measured in millimeters. A 50mm lens is standard. A 600mm lens is an extreme telephoto (great for birds and sports). Many SLR lenses have zoom capability. A standard zoom range is 70mm to 300mm.
Wide-angle SLR lenses are characterized by very small measurements in millimeters. While a 70-300 zoom is technically at it's wide-angle setting when at 70mm, this is not really wide-angle. 17mm is wide-angle.
Why Wide-Angle Is Important
Now that you know how to determine if your lens is at its wide-angle setting, let's find out why this is helpful for landscape photography.
Telephoto lenses (ones that are zoomed or have a high mm number) compress perspective. Everything in a telephoto shot starts to flatten out. This does not complement most landscapes, since the goal of the photograph is to draw the viewer into a three-dimensional world.
Wide-angle lenses also allow you to capture everything from the foreground to the background in your photograph. This lets you show everything in the photo from the grass at the edge of the lake to the mountains in the distance. It pulls the viewer in.
A wide-angle view is also closer to how our eyes perceive the world. If the person looking at your photo were standing in the same spot where you took the photo, they would see a wide-angle view of the scene. Since we don't walk around with binoculars attached to our eyes, it does not make sense to represent landscapes as if this were the case.
Maximum Depth of Field
Since depth of field is covered more in another part of this site, I will just summarize it here: small depth of field (small aperture number) means only the object you are focused on is sharp, large depth of field (large aperture number) means everything from the foreground to the background is in focus.
It makes sense then that you want to use a large depth of field for landscape photos. Let's say you have some rocks in the foreground, a stream in the middle and a mountain in the background. Your camera is focused on the stream. With an aperture set to f4.5 (small depth of field) only the stream will be in focus — the rocks and mountain will look blurry.
With the aperture set to f22 (large depth of field) the rocks, stream and mountain will all be in focus and clear. Like a wide-angle lens, this serves to draw your viewer into the photo, and it represents the scene as you actually see it (since your eyes do not have selective focus like a camera lens).
You've got your lens set to wide-angle and you've maxxed out the depth of field. What's the last little trick you can do to really make that landscape photo unique? Tilt the camera down.
And when I stay tilt, really point it at the ground. Tilt it farther than you think you should. Pointing the camera at the ground really brings out the foreground elements and makes the viewer of your photograph feel that they are standing right next to you. It's a neat trick and can really make a big difference in your landscape photos.