8 Common Landscape Photography Mistakes

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As photographers, we know that there are literally hundreds of small things that need to be done in each scene, that add up to the final magnificent shot. Sometimes when we get behind the camera, and the light becomes amazing, it’s very easy to forget one or two things, and the result is that the shot is not as good as it could have been. There are lots of details to remember, but there often some obvious things that have been forgotten. These are the common mistakes I see in many landscape images. If they were corrected at the time, the image would have been much more dramatic and powerful.

Penguins and iceberg in Antarctica.

Penguins and iceberg in Antarctica.

So here are the eight top landscape photography mistakes make so you can avoid them and improve your images:

1. Lack of stability – use a tripod

In creative images, blurriness can be very interesting. In landscape images however, you usually want your image to be sharp all the way through. The best way to be sure that your image is sharp is to use a tripod. If you are shooting in low light (you mostly will be if you are shooting landscapes) then you absolutely need to be using a tripod.

Now, there are tripods and there are tripods. For landscape photography, you might want to invest in a more heavy-duty one. The small light-weight tripods might do the trick for a while, but if you are shooting on a location and it’s windy, your tripod may get blown over, or might move because of the strength of the wind. A good tripod will also last a long time and take a beating, so buy the best tripod you can afford, and make sure you keep your camera as still as possible when shooting.

Another good piece of equipment to buy is a cable release. You don’t need to buy one of the expensive ones with the intervalometer built-in, no, just a simple cable release. Once you are set up and ready to take your shot, step back from the camera and press the button. There will be no vibration from you pressing the shutter release and your image will be nice and sharp. If you don’t have a cable release, you could use the built-in self timer to release the shutter too.

2. Not getting the horizon straight

This almost goes hand-in-hand with using a tripod. Many a good landscape image has been damaged by a skewed horizon. Fortunately, this can be easily fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom, so it’s not a very big worry, but you might have to crop out some details to get that right. The idea however, is to get the shot right in camera first, then edit.

You can use a few different tools to make sure your horizon is straight. Firstly, switch on the grid in your camera viewfinder, line up the horizon with the horizontal line, and you should be good. Some tripod heads have a built-in spirit level, make sure this is level and your horizon should be fine. Lastly, use the live view function on your camera, and if you have it, bring up the false horizon dial on the back of your screen, level your camera, and you are done.

I prefer levelling my horizon in camera, as it helps to save time in post production. If you need to straighten the horizon afterwards, you will need to crop the image as I noted earlier, which means your composition may change slightly. I prefer not to crop as far as possible, so getting it level in the camera is a good goal.

A crooked horizon is distracting.

A crooked horizon is distracting.

Looks better now that the horizon is straight.

Looks better now that the horizon is straight.

3. Shooting only in landscape format

Many photographers assume that they should shoot a landscape scene in landscape (horizontal) format. This is normally not a bad idea, but in some cases, a portrait orientation (vertical) can work really well. Think of a forest or mountain scene. If the subject shape is more vertical than horizontal, try it in the portrait format, it can add a dynamic feel to the scene.

Shoot in portrait format too!

Shoot in portrait format too!

4. Not thinking about the aperture

I truly believe that aperture is a composition tool. When you are setting up a scene, you should be thinking about your depth of field. Do you want everything from the foreground to the background to be in focus? Generally, in landscape photography, this will be the case.

If that is what you want, make sure your aperture is f/8, f/11 or higher. That way, you will ensure that everything is in sharp focus. If you are at f/2.8, and you focus on the foreground, the background will be out of focus, and the middle of your scene will be soft. This should be one of your key checkpoints when you set up the shot. If you are using a wide aperture and the mountains in the distance are out of focus, this cannot be fixed afterwards in Photoshop…not yet anyway!

In a landscape image, you will likely want everything in focus.

In a landscape image, you will likely want everything in focus.

5. Shooting using the camera’s landscape mode

Yes, you may have a landscape setting in the scene modes on your camera. As much as possible, try not to use it. Why? Well, it’s not great at making the exposure look good for your scene. What it will do is set your aperture to f/8 or even f/11, but it may not render the scene as effectively as you could do using manual settings. The scene settings are designed to work within certain parameters and in low-light conditions, they are not always the best choice. Try and shoot your landscapes on manual settings as far as possible, that means that you control ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

6. Standing next to other photographers

If you see a group of photographers standing on the top of a hill, it might be a good idea to shoot from somewhere else. This is not to say that other photographers have got it wrong, rather what I mean is, you want to go home with a different image to the others. Sometimes, the best composition or vantage point is at one particular spot, that’s fine, take a shot from there, but look for other places to get a great shot too.

It’s a good idea to scout a scene before you shoot it. Go and take a walk around the day before, look at where the sun will be setting, and decide on your position. Don’t simply follow the crowd, then your images will look like the rest of the images taken there.

A different vista of Machu Picchu.

A different vista of Machu Picchu.

7. Uninteresting negative space

Negative space is the space that surrounds your subject. This space can truly make, or break, your image. In most cases, the sky is the negative space in a landscape scene. A clear blue sky looks great, but some wispy soft clouds can really make the scene dramatic. If the sky has no clouds and is clear, this can make the scene seem uninteresting.

If you find that in your scene, make the sky a smaller portion of your image, if there are some great looking clouds, give it more space in your scene. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice, you may only be able to get some shots on a particular day. In that case you need to get what you can. If you don’t have this constraint, try to go back on another evening, when there are some clouds in the sky. Clouds give the sky detail, they reflect the sunlight, and can look yellow orange against a blue sky. This makes for a much more interesting scene.

The sky had no clouds, so I made it a small part of the image.

The sky had no clouds, so I made it a small part of the image.

8. No clear subject

It sounds crazy, but it is very easy to have an unclear subject in landscape photography. Most often, landscape photography is of a natural scene, mountains, forest, river, seascape, deserts, etc. Whichever one it is, make sure that it is clear to your viewer.

If you are photographing a mountainous scene, make sure you use a lens that works for that scene. Landscape photographers are tempted to think that every image needs to be taken with the wide angle lens. Sometimes, this can cause the mountain range in the background to seem small and insignificant. The same can be true in any of the other types of landscape photography. Be sure that your viewer knows what they are supposed to be looking at, and show them that, and the beauty that surrounds the subject. Get close to your subject, as close as possible, and if it’s not close enough, maybe you need to use a different lens to get closer. A 50mm lens can be used in landscape photography, so can a 200mm lens, it all depends on what you want the viewer to see.

Subject-2

The iceberg in front of the ship is clearly the subject here.

Next time you are planning a landscape photo shoot, run through these points quickly and see how it works out for you. If anything, you will be more mindful and deliberate about what you are shooting, and that will immediately improve your images. Enjoy.

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Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here

  • Polar

    Thanks. I appreciate that you illustrate each point with a photo and I learned some useful tips. I will keep them in mind the next time I go on a holiday.

    Just a minor point, I feel the heading points 1 and 2 can be changed to fit better with the whole article. Currently I feel that they don’t gel as well with the rest of the points because the heading for pts 1 and 2 are listing things you should do but pts 3 to 8 are things you should not do. Also your article title is “8 common mistakes” which further implies that each point is about a mistake or the name of a mistake. So when you read the title and then the point heading, it feels like “Get the horizon straight” is a mistake. Like I’ve said, it’s a small thing and readers will have no problems understanding what you mean after reading the contents, but it can be a bit confusing at a first glance.

  • George Johnson

    Some really good common sense stuff that it took me a good few years to learn the hard way! Ha ha!

    When I see a group of photographers standing together one thought springs to mind, “There must be something more interesting around here as I don’t want to get the exact same shot as that lot!”.

    Portrait mode landscapes, when I bought my current camera about 4 years ago I missed not having a wide-angle lens, I simply couldn’t afford one. So the only way I could “compensate” was shoot vertical in order to get the foregrounds I wanted, it changed my way do looking at scenes and I started to see my landscapes in terms of narrow corridors sometimes. I have since bought a wide-angle lens and even use that in portrait sometimes too! If you shoot landscapes in portrait mode you’ll get more people looking to buy images for book covers, ha ha!

    The last point is spot on! The number of times I see images shot of the most amazing scenery but shot in such a way that the image completely fails to engage ‘cos the photographer simply thought the majesty of the scenery would take care of itself. This almost relates back to my first point where people will simply shoot from the same tripod holes as those before them. If you force yourself away from the herd you learn to stand on your own two feet and you have to start learning to look for good compositions on your own, it takes time but practice always makes perfect.

    Superb article!

  • John Voss

    Regarding point 4, consider using a hyperfocal distance calculator of which there are quite a few on line. I use a film camera, and my lenses have hyperfocal distance scales engraved on the lens for each f stop. Rather than just using the smallest aperture your lens offers, which can beget diffraction, the lens scale or calculator will give the precise near – far settings for each f stop. For digital cameras, it is important to use the actual, not 35mm equivalent, lens setting.

    And, I agree about using manual adjustments for this kind of photography. Not only will you be likely to achieve better results, but you will actually understand what the adjustments are doing.

    Good article, too, btw. Even with experience, it’s all too easy to overlook some of these points.

  • Tim Lowe

    Re: Landscape vs. Portrait orientation.

    I’m convinced the terms come from large format shooting. The camera movements to get sharp fore, middle and backgrounds are much smaller in “landscape” orientation. When I set up a “portrait” landscape, the camera movements frighten the tourists. 😉

  • Tim Lowe

    Absolutely (assuming your lens is capable of fitting everything in which is far from given). Ah for the good old days when 35mm and medium format lenses had DOF markings on the barrel. Just roll that little infinity symbol out to the mark for the aperture you are shooting and you have maximum DOF.

  • Travel Bug

    Don’t be too quick to discount the value of a group of people taking photos in one spot. If I had not stopped to look at what they were photographing I would have missed seeing a Grizzly and her cubs for the first time in the wild. I have never seen it again since. Groups of people taking photos can get you something special.

  • John Voss

    These can be quite pricey. I have a non-laser one that was not expensive, but works. Here are a few to consider. http://toprangefinder.com/

  • Tim Lowe

    Or you could just refuse to buy cheap lenses with no markings. Which is what works for me.

  • John Voss

    When I use my 4×5 camera, people stop dead and watch from a respectful distance. Then they take a picture of me and the camera with their iphone. That goes on facebook before I even put the dark slide back. You’d think they’d just tripped over a dinosaur fossil…which….wait for it……you know what’s comin’……………………..they kinda did!!

  • Tim Lowe

    We ARE fossils. You remind me, I’ve got 4 sheets hanging in the closet…

  • Good point – I have reworded them. Better?

  • Funny, you guys take me way back when! Thanks for that. I haven’t shot large format in many years.

  • Of course Travel Bug, as I said, shoot from there, but try and find a different vantage point too, that way you wont have the “same” images as everyone else.

  • Thanks John, Hyperfocal distance cards are great and they are easily found. Thanks for the comments!

  • John Voss

    :))) Notch-ance they’d know that!!

  • bskier7

    Coming from someone that has complete inability to get hold my camera level when shooting, #2 really hits home. I’m always having to make corrections in the computer. Somehow I can spot a sloping horizon almost immediately on the computer but not in my viewfinder.

  • Yep, bskier, a tripod is a really useful tool!

  • Ivan Gastaldo

    Indeed!! This is my take on Macchu Picchu…. while I took all the “classic” shots, I climbed as high as possible, and went as far to the left as I could, so I could get my own angle….. you’ll definitely want “your” original shots in the collection.

  • Yannick Leinweber

    Hej,
    I am rather new to actually learning photography. so far the fast majority of my photography is taking snapshots with a compact camera (KODAK Easyshare Z915), without tripod or anything. this summer i started thinking a bit more about photography and experimenting with makro photography. just before christmas i upgraded to a NIKON D3400, as my old little cam is six years old by now and getting really slow. also i am planning a trip to nepal next autumn, and i wanted a good cam for that.

    about one and a half years ago i started publishing some of my pictures, that i think are worth sharing. none of my pictures are post processed.
    http://ighengiskhani.deviantart.com/

    i would be really grateful for some feedback and tips, about how to improve.
    here a small selection of pictures.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/789a015a2588b7b6dda84598d8454db6c0de547d04846c4aeedd32875fc88d3f.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/604c7d459c9d9f4f3b939b3e3e7d514121eb6194e138dc42735123a69f8450b2.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/67eecc43b53b160f3625be1976a2dfce4a310f1026a6fe528e85cc98f5283152.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/849148f0d37cbf7516ed8e18b857db5019412f141f460f4fcab6e6bc5be24a89.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f3117cb861db1eebddf9a3cfc2546ce5cc70b887a96b26443773849b49939675.jpg

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