5 Tips for Shooting Landscapes with Greater Impact - Digital Photography School
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5 Tips for Shooting Landscapes with Greater Impact

Hands down, the number one question I get is how to make better landscape images. Many fall into the new-gear trap thinking that when I upgrade to some new DSLR then I’ll be able to take better pictures. They buy the gear and suddenly the wind drops from their sails and their images still lack impact. So let’s talk about some things you can do to make your landscape photos pop.

1. Fanatically Chase the Best Light

What is good light you say? There is really no such thing as bad light, but it’s hard to create images with impact during the middle of the day when the sun is high. Midday the sun is harsh and it washes out colors and texture with heavy dark shadows.

The best time to get out and shoot everyday is when the sun is low in the sky because it creates more interesting side lighting that gives the subject more depth and scale. The light is much warmer creating softer highlights with better texture detail. This low warm light is also near sunrise and sunset and those are obvious times to add amazing colors to a landscape.

Autumn Sunset (Lost Memory).jpg

Another great place to look for amazing light is at the edges of storms. When a storm is passing through, the clouds can break up allowing the sun to peek through creating very dramatic scenes with well lit foregrounds against a dark sky. The air is clear and the ground is wet reflecting more of the colorful light from the sun. These kinds of storms move quickly and the light can change in a moment, so you have to be ready.

Mamutus Clouds over Red Bluff.jpg

Shooting during off hours of the day is tough because those are very anti-social times. The first part of the day just after sunrise is really early and most of us still have to work five days a week. In the evening, the best light is going down right when dinner is served and it’s hard to leave your family behind and return to eat your dinner cold.

2. Don’t be Lazy

Getting good light in a landscape shot is the same difference between shooting a model with and without makeup. You have to work to get to these locations early in the morning and late in evening. At sunrise, that means hiking out in the dark to get on location to catch sunrise. That means flash lights, an extra layer of clothing and a stiff brew of coffee to keep you awake through the wee hours of the morning.

Patience is also key. You might be hiking during the day and find the best view looking down Yosemite Valley but it’s midday and the light sucks. To get this shot you need the fortitude to sit there half the day for the sun to get low and possibly put up a nice sunset for you. The light may not do what you want, so are you willing to stay another day to try again? If you do, your shot won’t be just another Tunnel View.

3. Know Your Landscapes

There is this odd grass is greener somewhere else mindset all of us fall into. We believe we have to travel somewhere to get a great landscape shot. The truth is, you know your area like the back of your hand and if you don’t, get in your car and explore. A vast majority of my best images were all taken within 75 miles of my home. Keep in mind that the whole world doesn’t get to look at your countryside daily. So when it’s boring and repetitive for you, it’s always new and exciting for your admirers.

Immersion - Brandy Creek.jpg

When you do travel, do your research before you get there. Google Earth is my number one go-to app for researching locations. You can go a step further and use The Photographers Ephemeris which plots where the sun and moon will rise and set. This is a lifesaver for knowing when the sun will hit a peak and from what angle. I can find out when the sun will go down behind a ridgeline to shoot a waterfall. Being armed with this research will dramatically boost the number of keepers and and your fans will think you’re a rockstar.

4. Don’t be a Chicken

Have you ever gotten to an awesome landscape and failed to get the shot because you didn’t cross a creek or you didn’t want to lay down in the mud to get an awesome new perspective. Often times changing our point of view can completely change a composition. I’m not suggesting you do anything dangerous, only you try pushing yourself beyond your typical comfort zone to really work for that shot. When I shoot moving water, inevitably, you will find me standing in the middle of the creek so I pack waders with me to stay dry.

landscapes with impact.jpeg

Perhaps to get a clear view of a rainbow you need to get down on the ground and lay in some mud to see around some brush. If you have a fear of the dark, make steps to work past that fear so you can stay out past blue hour and not be afraid to walk back to your car in the dark with a flashlight. Perhaps the mosquitoes are acting like Africanized Bees. Be prepared with bug spray and swat a few so you can get the shot regardless. Landscape photography is often uncomfortable, slightly dangerous and downright boring, but if you’re willing to work past these challenges, the results will create incredible impact.

5. Use Different Focal Lengths

For most people, when they think of a landscape, they think of big expanses shot using a wide-angle lense. Try something different by shooting with longer focal lengths. This allows you to really focus in on specific details. You can see past all the distractions and you get to give the best part of the scene the whole stage.

Autumn Oaks (Potpourri).jpg

Wide-angle tends to make distant objects like mountain peaks feel distant and small. Telephotos will bring that peak in close and will compress all the objects together making them feel bigger and giving them a much greater impact.

You can still get great impact shooting wide. Many incorrectly believe that wide angle lenses are good for “getting it all in”. The opposite is true. Since you can get more in the shot, it allows you to get much closer to the subject filling the frame with more of what you want having fewer distractions.

Final Words

If you struggle with creating dull and insignificant images, the recurring theme through all of these tips is simply to do something new that you’re aren’t doing now. Growing your craft is not a 5-step checklist, it’s a process that takes time. Get out of your computer chair and experiment, keep making mistakes, and don’t forget to have fun! For me each new image is the thrill of the hunt. I love to seek the unknown and share it with the world. Images created by overcoming the biggest hurdles with the most blood, sweat and tears always move people the most.

PS: Also check out our post 11 Surefire Tips for Improving Your Landscape Photography.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like...

Eric Leslie is a pro photographer from northern California. He has a stubborn curiosity to explore with his camera and he's the father of five boys. Keep up with his latest wedding photography and photography tips at Google+ and Facebook.

  • http://www.FredWeymouth.com Fred Weymouth

    Good Points, Eric. One that I use personally and that may be of interest to readers is to look at a scene you are thinking of capturing, then take your hand and put it over one of your eyes, thereby creating a two dimensional representation (and one that mimics what will be captured by your sensor). If the scene still looks strong with your hand over one eye, then you have a strong composition, if not, it may be time to look for another shot.

  • erwin

    this guy is cool. thanks for the tips i’ll try and do your advice. i’m tempted to buy a wide angle lense which is quite expensive by the promoters and manufacturer of the lenses. now i know that telephoto lenses can be competent in taking landscape pics. anyways i’ll experiment with my telephoto zoom lens. thanks again. Godbls.

  • Tony

    Very useful article, but can’t help wondering about this shooting moving water while you’re standing in the middle of the creek. Since you’re using longer shutter speed, or at least not fast enough to stop the motion, ain’t gonna the moving water streaming by the legs of your tripod cause burry images? Of course, you want water to be blurry, but camera shaking will deffinitely not do good in terms of getting the trees and everything else crisp sharp… Or I’m missing something?

  • http://ericleslie.com/ Eric Leslie

    Hey Tony,
    I’m sure there is some vibration translated into camera. I would contend that sometimes it’s better to have a fresh point of view giving people a perspective that most don’t venture out to get than have a picture that’s sharper at 200% magnification. The images certainly are not blurry. If it’s a situation like the one pictured, I would put most of my weight on the tripod to minimize any vibrations.

    Experiment and see what you come up with.

  • Guest

    An 8 second exposure, taken in the river, with quite a bit of a current. But a decent tripod in itself is a very handy tool. There is not much issues of the sharpness on the rock where water is not the reason for the blur.

Some older comments

  • Fred Weymouth

    April 4, 2013 09:46 am

    Good Points, Eric. One that I use personally and that may be of interest to readers is to look at a scene you are thinking of capturing, then take your hand and put it over one of your eyes, thereby creating a two dimensional representation (and one that mimics what will be captured by your sensor). If the scene still looks strong with your hand over one eye, then you have a strong composition, if not, it may be time to look for another shot.

  • Rosanna

    March 22, 2013 04:44 am

    Anyone have a preferred wide angle lens, Canon, for landscapes they could recommend?

  • Kenny Sampson

    December 27, 2012 01:43 pm

    I laid down in a think thorn bush to get this shot. I had holes in everything, but I love the shot.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sampsonimages/8234272014/in/photostream

  • Michael

    December 26, 2012 10:20 am

    Yeah, get in & get the feet wet!!!

  • Eric Leslie

    September 21, 2012 05:56 am

    @Frank,

    I don't own an ultrawide lens, so on a crop-sensored body, 18mm or full frame 27mm should be enough. Of course the ultra-wides allow more possibilities, but I find I have plenty of creative freedom using "normal" wide-angle focal lengths.

  • Frank

    September 21, 2012 05:42 am

    hey Eric:

    You mentioned you used a wide lens for the 1st 2 pics. How wide?

  • Amanda D Austwick

    May 30, 2012 01:22 am

    Even before I actually took a photography class, I had read a lot about it.
    In the 90s before digital cameras came out, I remember standing in a stream with my Nikon film camera, and zooming in on a little fall in the stream.
    I still have some of those photos and negatives, and a negative scanner, but I have little time to scan those negatives.
    I'm focused on my digital camera and PS, and the great plug ins that can now do a lot of the work for you.
    Amanda

  • Amanda D Austwick

    May 30, 2012 01:17 am

    Eric, I agree WB is very important. I once had an instructor say, leave your camera on daylight if you are out side, Since it is daylight. Well no way jose will I do that. I have always used and will always use cloudy and shade settings.

  • Eric Leslie

    May 29, 2012 03:45 pm

    @Jenny I usually let me camera choose the WB at first because I'm very particular about my colors being accurate. Every single shot I process has a custom WB set in Lightroom.

  • Jenny

    May 29, 2012 01:35 pm

    Hi Eric! Do you change the white balance of your gadget when taking landscape pictures?

  • Eric Leslie

    May 29, 2012 01:20 am

    Hello @Frank, Both of those shots were shot near sea level and with a wide angle lens. In both of those shots the sky and clouds were the most interesting part of the shot, so I angle the camera up to include more of those things in the shot.

  • Frank

    May 29, 2012 01:16 am

    Nice tips Eric.

    Question - In the 1st 2 pics, the sky seems low, does this happen cuz you using special lens or cuz your are high up in the mountains?

  • Wendy Bandurski-Miller

    May 27, 2012 10:22 pm

    This is a good list and something i will use in teaching my kids (somehow it is always better to reinforce the point if it is in writing and from another person's perspective). It is amazing how so many people DO think that their own neighbourhood is not up to par yet everybody's neighbourhood is local to SOMEONE..

    I would also agree having the camera on you at all times is imperative (and that includes the tripod). Thanks for the great article.

  • Amir

    May 26, 2012 10:37 pm

    great article

    just got back from austria

    great landscape photography oportunity

    i fond the man and nature landscape photography makes for very good pictures...

    try embeding buikdings and houses in nature, it can work wonders :)

    here is a little taste of what i mean:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/7223109020/in/photostream

    and one with only nature:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/7263641142/in/photostream

    Amir

  • Mikel B PHOto

    May 25, 2012 10:16 pm

    Great article! Here is a bit of an urban landscape

    http://goo.gl/fKaAv

  • Abhinav

    May 25, 2012 06:12 pm

    Very useful tips! The third one - 'know your landscape' - is a very very important one.

  • Lightraider

    May 25, 2012 07:27 am

    As I was reading your very fine article I couldn't help thinking about Ansel Adams and how he achieved to get his famous photo of a cemetery at dusk. The major difference with him was that it was at dusk and he had to rig his very large (5X7 or !0X8 ) plate camera with a very heavy tripod on top of his vehicle to get the shot before the sun totally disappeared. He had to take his exposure, load the film plate and get the shot. My how times have changed yet the sense of urgency and opportunity remains.

  • jason

    May 25, 2012 06:45 am

    Thanks for these tips im new to all this so im thankfull for all the help i can get.

  • photog learner

    May 25, 2012 05:13 am

    Thanks so much for your tip about shooting right where you are instead of thinking all the great shots are somewhere else. It's such a good point you made, that others don't get to see what we do get to see every day!

  • aaanouel

    May 25, 2012 04:59 am

    Excellent article!. Useful tips!
    No much more to say...

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead

    May 25, 2012 04:02 am

    I am still at war with myself with regard to 'Don't be Lazy' and 'Don't be a Chicken' !

  • Calin

    May 25, 2012 02:56 am

    Great tips...I keep on learning...

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/calinrett/2743942407/in/photostream

  • Eric Leslie

    May 25, 2012 02:01 am

    @Maha My boys are getting older now. My youngest is 6 and most of them love hiking and the outdoors just as much as I do. So it's very much a family experience for me.

  • Eric Leslie

    May 25, 2012 01:53 am

    @anna Awesome. I'm working on my next post now so stay tuned.

  • naz

    May 25, 2012 01:38 am

    the mosquitos in our neck of the woods act more like angry teradactyls

  • Anna Lear

    May 25, 2012 01:35 am

    Very helpful article; I found it highly readable and practical. I continue to struggle with landscapes so I'm eager for some new tips -- I especially appreciated your advice re: focal length. Thank you!!

  • Maha

    May 25, 2012 01:05 am

    Great article and very helpful tips, but I must say, I was struck by the 'father of 5 boys' in the bio. Now I'm even more impressed that you have time for photography! I have two.

  • Fuzzypiggy

    May 24, 2012 10:13 pm

    “Landscape photography is often uncomfortable, slightly dangerous and downright boring, but if you’re willing to work past these challenges, the results will create incredible impact.”

    Amen! The hardest parts, which most people are not prepared to do, is getting up at 1 or 2am, driving for 100-150 miles to catch a 5am sunrise, then watiing around all day until the sunset in the evening. As Tom Petty sang, the waiting is the hardest part! Best thing is go scouting for locations during daylight hours, check out some locations and try to visualise that scene for future reference before heading back to your intended target area.

    What is is about sunsets and people vanishing? I turn up for sunsets about an hour or two before, like most people, the sun hits the horizon and bang everyone vanishes! No! The best colours and light are that 45 mins after the sun just dips past the horizon, the sky catches fire and a bonus if you have water to bounce the sky off.

  • Sudarshan

    May 24, 2012 08:05 pm

    "Don't be a chicken.." LOL
    Great tips. Thanks :)

  • Eric Leslie

    May 24, 2012 01:05 pm

    @eeps, I totally agree. I almost always have my CPL on the front of my lens. One of the few things you can't really reproduce in Post.

    @Karen Duly noted LOL. It reminds me of that youtube video that when around where the wedding photographer was ahead of the bride-groom leaving the alter and he was walking backwards shooting them. He trips into a water fountain at the end of the isle completely soaking himself and all of his gear.

  • Chris

    May 24, 2012 07:18 am

    @Eric

    Thank you for your response....... I'm hopeful that I'll be able to lay on the field at Wrigley Field and take a photo with an old Cubs hat, glove, and ball all while capturing the outfield ivy and scoreboard.

    Thanks for the tips.

    Chris

  • Alexx

    May 24, 2012 05:27 am

    Great post!

    I haven't really done much landscape work lately, but we bought an rv and we will be traveling all over us and Canada soon.

    http://www.disney-photography-blog.com/2012/05/reflection-on-water.html?m=0

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    May 24, 2012 01:02 am

    Hi

    Here is a bit of Light Chasing from Southern California..."Dances with Light"

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/dances-with-light/

  • Karen

    May 23, 2012 11:37 pm

    Nice article. I've used the http://photoephemeris.com/ app when traveling to figure out the best time of day to shoot.

    Just one thing about not being a chicken: Please don't look through the viewfinder when you're moving your feet. It's easy to lose track of your location and walk off a cliff when looking through your lens. There are way too many "death by photography" stories out there already.

  • anotherphotographynoob

    May 23, 2012 09:56 pm

    adding a car also does quite a job in creating different landscape photography:

    http://anotherphotographynoob.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/car/

    tried it yesterday

  • Jeff E Jensen

    May 23, 2012 09:04 pm

    Excellent tips, Eric. I loved your comments about ideal shooting times being "anti social" times. Funny, but so true.

    Here's some recent favorites:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2011/12/locomotive-springs.html

  • Eeps

    May 23, 2012 01:39 pm

    Use a CPL (or LPL). Polarizers really make those colors pop. Put on a pair of polarized sunglasses and see the difference from when you're not wearing them. They're that good. This filter will also help you manage reflections.

    On a lesser scale, bring along some ND filters as well. What type will depend on the shot you want to achieve. If the entire area will be covered in the same light, a solid one will do. But if there's a horizon in your shot, a graduated one would be better. If you're shooting seascapes or fields, get a hard one. If you're shooting mountains, use a soft GND. You can tell the difference by how the line between dark and light areas of the filter change. The hard GND has an almost clean line from dark to light, while a soft GND has a very gradual change from dark to light. How dark your ND filters are will depend on the available light, the contrast between light and dark areas, and the effects you want to achieve. I would recommend the Cokin system type of filters because it would be easier to adjust the filter to match the horizon in your composition. A screw in type GND would have the horizon in the center all the time and those types of pics are just not that interesting.

    The only caveat with using these filters is that they aren't highly recommended when using ultra wide angle (UWA) lenses, because they tend to give uneven color casts to the sky due to the huge coverage of these lenses and the innate light altering effects of the filters. HTH

  • JohnP

    May 23, 2012 01:13 pm

    Great tips thanks. Would be interested to hear your post-production (photoshop) steps for landscapes. One that works for me but maybe not everybodys' cup of tea, is in levels to click the white eyedropper on the whitest part of the photo and the black eyedropper on the blackest then adjust the slider till the colours "pop". Sometimes you can also use the grey eyedropper although that is a little more tricky. Be carefull not to blow highlights (or shadows) by ensuring you only select the whitest white and blackest black. By making this quick adjustment to levels you are using the full spectrum between black & white (dark & light) which may not have been the case in the original photo.

  • Anne McKinnell

    May 23, 2012 12:31 pm

    "Landscape photography is often uncomfortable, slightly dangerous and downright boring, but if you’re willing to work past these challenges, the results will create incredible impact." <-- That's an outstanding statement Eric! Great article.

  • David

    May 23, 2012 09:29 am

    Really really good article! The message goes well beyond 'just' landsacpe photography. Lessons for all here - thanks!

  • Emilie

    May 23, 2012 09:16 am

    Great article Eric! Crystal pointed me in your articles direction (by a post on FB) and I'm so glad to see it published here. Being more of a portrait photographer myself I still find your tips helpful! You never know when you need to change your angle (getting down on a dirty surface haha) or when you will need a camera (I try and keep mine with me as much as possible as well). Great stuff - keep up the good work!

  • Gary Mc Nutt

    May 23, 2012 08:31 am

    Really good article, i tried these at the weekend:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/garymcnutt/7244616584/lightbox/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/garymcnutt/7244607072/lightbox/

  • Scottc

    May 23, 2012 07:57 am

    Great tips and great photos.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/6921926581/

  • Eric Leslie

    May 23, 2012 06:44 am

    Hey @Chris,

    I'm assuming you'll be shooting during the day. Typically for a shot like that you want maximum focus so shooting on a medium to small aperture is an important first step. With your camera on aperture priority mode, you can set the aperture and the camera will calculate the rest of the settings for you. Your distance away that foreground object you're talking about will determine the exact aperture. F/8 is safe if the object is further away. You can move up to f/10 or f/14 if it's really close. I would give the same advice if you were shooting this at night under the stadium lights only you'll probably need a tripod to allow for a longer exposure. There's a lot of factors so I hope this helps get you started.

  • Captain Kimo

    May 23, 2012 05:51 am

    Excellent read Eric. A camera can only take you so far. The other part of the equation will get you further without expensive gear. My 5DMK2 is in the shop, and I'm making fantastic images with my Rebel XT at 8mp!

  • Eric Leslie

    May 23, 2012 05:03 am

    @Steve So true. I make it a habbit to take my camera with me everywhere I go. Sometimes you have to just stop the car and shoot because things like a passing storm will never look the same again.

  • Chris

    May 23, 2012 04:56 am

    I have the opportunity coming up to shoot a classic ball park and would like some suggestions on shooting that landscape. I have a specific shot in mind with a prop in the foreground and the ivy wall / scoreboard in the back. What would be an ideal camera setting to achieve this look?

  • Digital Photography

    May 23, 2012 03:28 am

    "Don’t be a Chicken". It could be the important thing that I have to say to myself over and over again.

  • steve slater

    May 23, 2012 01:59 am

    Good article.
    Have your camera with you at all times is a good tip.
    You never know when a scene will pop up so be ready for it:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-from-Gibraltar/G0000UjYi3ZZ.0o4/I0000lzp_z50Pmyc

  • raghavendra

    May 23, 2012 01:36 am

    fine tips here.
    especially the light!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/2010/08/sun-rise-with-rainy-clouds.html

  • Sathya

    May 23, 2012 01:34 am

    Hey Eric - Good to see ur article here, nicely written.

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