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The Most Stubborn Myths in Landscape Photography

Chances are good that you’ve run across plenty of inaccuracies and misinformation in the online world of photography, landscape or otherwise. Some myths, though, stand the test of time, outlasting years of diligent debunking. Below are four of the most common myths and misconceptions you’ll find in the field of landscape photography, including some which are prevalent even among advanced photographers.

1) The Rule of Thirds

Perhaps the single most stubborn myth in landscape photography, and photography in general, is the rule of thirds. You’ve heard of it before, I’m sure. Even non-photographers know about the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds isn’t simply the most well-known composition tip; it’s the only one that a lot of people know. But is it worthwhile? Should you mentally superimpose a 1/3 grid across many, most, or all of your photos before taking them?

Rule of thirds landscape
Following the rule of thirds

The simple answer is no; you shouldn’t default to composing to the rule of thirds. Perhaps the most important reason why is that the rule of thirds is just a single inflexible structure, reducing one of the most important concepts in photography – composition – into a formula that takes away much of your creative control.

Think of the best photos of all time. How many of them are composed according to the rule of thirds? Some certainly align more than others, but their compositions are all over the board.

The rule of thirds is only valuable in one way: It introduces beginners to the fact that off-center compositions can be successful. That’s it. If you already understand this fact – the potential value of placing your subject off to one side or the other – you’ve outgrown the rule of thirds.

Other than that, there is no psychological basis to the rule of thirds. There is no difference between the rule of thirds and, say, the “rule of two fifths” except that it’s easier to remember. Our eyes certainly don’t gravitate to the 1/3 intersection points; generally, they gravitate toward the points of interest in a photo regardless of where they are located.

Same goes for other compositional structures. If you try to compose a large portion of your photos in the same way, you likely will miss out on a lot of interesting images.

Photo Composed without Rule of Thirds
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 135mm, ISO 800, 1/400, f/16.0
Narrows
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 2 seconds, f/16.0
ISO Invariance Aspens
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/30, f/16.0

Myth: The rule of thirds is the most pleasing and powerful way to compose your photos.

Instead: Composition is very complicated, highly subjective, and deeply personal. The ideal composition will change significantly from photo to photo. It’s not that the rule of thirds structure is bad by any means – it’s just neutral, no more special than other ways to frame a photo. The better method is to compose every landscape photo for its own merits. Don’t fall back on an inflexible, one-size-fits-all rule to address such an important subject.

2) Exposing to the Right (ETTR) and Blown Highlights

Exposing to the right, or ETTR, is when you take the brightest possible photo that doesn’t overexpose any pixels with important details. Done right, ETTR results in the highest possible image quality, since you are capturing as much information as possible.

However, you’ll sometimes hear landscape photographers say that they don’t expose to the right because they don’t want to blow out any highlights. Or, they’ll mention a handful of situations where ETTR isn’t helpful, such as high-contrast scenes. Is that an accurate perspective or another myth?

First, let’s look at an easy example. The following photo is as bright as possible, but none of the highlight details are completely blown out. An image like this out of camera is exposed to the right:

ETTR Photo Before Darkening
This photo, of course, would be darkened in subsequent post-processing.

No one really argues with that example. It is a clear case of ETTR, with very a bright photo that nonetheless preserves all of the important highlight detail. Virtually all photographers agree that ETTR in cases like this will result in the best possible image quality (after darkening the RAW photo in post-production).

Where many people get confused is that this example, too, is properly exposed to the right (unedited):

Negative 2.0EV Exposure

And so is this one (also unedited):

Fjord Horse-1

That’s because exposing to the right has nothing to do with whether your photo appears too dark or too bright. It has everything to do with preserving your highlight detail.

In fact, exposing to the right frequently means taking a darker exposure than what your camera’s meter recommends. Of the three photos above, if I had followed my meter, the bottom two would have lost significant highlight detail. Exposing to the right, then, saved the photo.

So, if anyone ever tells you not to expose to the right because it can result in overexposure, they are misinformed. By definition, ETTR can’t blow out your highlights.

That’s not to say you should always expose to the right, though. It can take some extra time in the field to get exact, and you might be willing to accept a less-than-optimal exposure in order to guarantee that you got something before the scene faded. And, at higher ISOs (not as common in landscape photography), the benefits are much subtler.

But don’t fall for the myth that exposing to the right can blow out your highlights. Instead, ETTR is calculated underexposure – calculated to the brightest possible point, so that you capture the greatest amount of information in a single image.

Myth: Exposing to the right can blow out your highlights.

Instead: Exposing to the right is the optimal exposure in a photo. Proper ETTR simply cannot blow out any important highlights, since the fundamental definition of exposing to the right is that you’re keeping your highlights intact. Rather than following your camera’s meter exactly, expose to the right if you have time to do so. (If you want tips, check out this article.)

3) Where to Focus in a Landscape

If you’re trying to capture a landscape, and you want the entire image to appear as sharp as possible from front to back, where would you focus? The horizon? Your main subject? A third of the way into the scene? None of the above. It seems like for every possible focusing distance, you’ll find someone recommending it as optimal! But most of these suggestions miss the mark.

Even hyperfocal distance calculators and charts are not ideal if you want the sharpest photo from front to back. They are biased toward giving you the exact same (relatively low) amount of background sharpness in every single photo, regardless of whether or not a sharper result is possible, and regardless of how close or far away your foreground is. On top of that, they don’t even take diffraction into account. If maximum front to back sharpness is your goal, they’re not worth consulting.

Instead, to find the distance where you should focus in order to capture both a maximally sharp foreground and background, you don’t need a chart; you only need some elementary school math. It’s the “double the distance” method, as we’ve mentioned a few times before on Photography Life: Find the closest object in your scene that you want to be sharp. Estimate its distance away from your camera. Double that distance. Focus there.

Hyperfocal Distance Landscape Photo
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/16.0
Here, I the nearest flowers were about one foot (0.3 meters) away from my camera, so I focused on flowers about two feet (0.6 meters) away.

You can go in more detail by reading our full hyperfocal distance article, but you already have the fundamental information you need. If the closest object in your photo is roughly two feet away, focus four feet away. If the closest object in your photo is one meter away, focus two meters away.

The only counterexample is if you don’t want maximum sharpness from front to back – for example, if you’re prioritizing subject sharpness more than anything else. In that case, simply focus on the subject (such as the Milky Way at night).

Myth: You should focus “1/3 into the scene” in landscape photography. Or you should focus on the horizon. Or you should use a traditional hyperfocal distance chart. Etc.

Instead: There is only one focusing point which equalizes foreground and background sharpness, giving you the sharpest possible photo from front to back. Although there are a few methods to find it, the easiest is simply the double-the-distance method. (Also check out our other article on selecting the optimal aperture now that you’ve focused properly.)

4) Professionals and Manual Mode

Somehow, word got around to beginning photographers that the pros shoot all-manual everything. Although that makes sense in theory – expert photographers wouldn’t want the camera making any crucial decisions, right? – it doesn’t capture a large part of the truth.

The fact is that professional photographers use various automatic features all the time. Autofocus, automatic metering, semi-automatic exposure modes, auto subject tracking, TTL flash, and so on. It’s almost inescapable, and that’s a good thing.

Automatic modes aren’t just a way to fill in gaps in your knowledge. They also serve an important purpose to speed up the capture process.

For example, say that you’re capturing a sunrise as the sky gets brighter and brighter. Do you want to watch your camera’s meter and manually change exposure when it shifts, or would you rather the camera do the exact same thing on its own, giving you one less thing to worry about?

Most people would prefer the latter. That’s one reason why I use aperture-priority mode (the most useful of the semi-automatic modes, in general) all the time for landscape photography, and only switch to manual when I need several photos in a row to have exactly the same exposure settings.

In another case, say that you’re trying to focus perfectly on a fence in your foreground while a rainbow is fading quickly in the background. Should you take the time to magnify live view as much as possible, then manually turn the focus ring until the image looks sharp? Or, would you rather use autofocus to focus at the exact same spot much more quickly, and with generally equal accuracy? That’s what I did below:

Ireland-Waterfall-Rainbow-Sunrise
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 130mm, ISO 100, 1/2, f/16.0

Pros shoot with various automatic settings all the time. I’m not referring to all professionals – certainly, some photographers prefer to shoot completely manually all the time, either out of habit or just because they’re most comfortable with it – but the vast majority will use specific automatic features constantly without a second thought. If it’s an easier way to get the same image, why not?

Myth: Advanced photographers avoid the “auto” settings a camera offers.

Instead: It depends upon the person, but most advanced photographers will shoot with some auto settings quite often. This doesn’t mean you should use the full-auto mode on your camera, which really does take away vital control. It also doesn’t mean manual mode is useless; it’s essential for certain images. But once you’ve mastered things like exposure and focusing, you’ll realize that there are several times when you can use an automated feature to speed up your process without giving up control.

Conclusion

From the creative side of landscape photography to the technical, there are plenty of popular myths that can harm your photos if you believe them too thoroughly.

These just scratch the surface, but hopefully the information above provides a framework for parsing the reality of common landscape photography suggestions. Quite simply, question everything you learn and test it out for yourself before accepting it as valid. Try out different compositions other than the rule of thirds and see how you like the results. Practice exposing to the right – the proper way – if you’ve been wary of it before. Compare for yourself the double-the-distance method against traditional hyperfocal distance charts to see which one gives you sharper images from front to back. And, if you’re shooting all-manual everything, use a semi-automatic mode of some kind and see if it improves your speed in the field.

The good news is that a number of photographers out there already know the information above, and they’re constantly correcting myths when they may appear. Still, some faults will always find a way into the fold, and it helps to be prepared against them from the start. Hopefully the list above puts a few of them into perspective for you.

News Reporter

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