10 Tips for Landscape Photographers

10 Tips for Landscape Photographers

By Declan O’Neill

“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.” – Ansel Adams.

So many times I have pointed my camera at a landscape simply because it was there and looked beautiful. This was a a trap. I had been lured me into believing that simply taking the photograph was worthwhile in itself. All I had done was hold a mirror up to nature. I had not made the photograph. The image made no statement and expressed nothing about my own perspective.

Ansel Adams understood that the photographer needs to find a voice through the landscape. For years I floundered because I had nothing to convey other than the obvious beauty of the land. I realised that I had to find a way to engage with the landscape because, if I couldn’t, then neither could the people who saw my photographs.

The following tips are just reflections based on a personal philosophy of what I believe is important in landscape photography.

1. Have Something to Say about the Landscape


The land takes time to read and to understand. You have to stand still and see the way light changes the contours and shapes. As the sun moves, it lights forests and streams in dramatically different ways.

It took me a long time to see that light gives landscape its own voice. Light creates mood and emotion in landscape. The land is a huge canvas on which light paints a complex and delicate picture.

For me, photography is about capturing the way in which light transforms the land. My decisions, therefore, about what to photograph and how to compose the shot are all dictated by the question, ‘Does this say something about light and landscape?’ This simple question leads me to reject many frames which, while beautiful, present no opportunity to explore my chosen theme.

2. Get up Early!

If given a choice between dawn and sunset I would always choose the former. I have nothing against sunset shots but I usually find that there is nothing original that I can add to the thousands of sunset photographs I have seen.


Dawn light, however, is always surprising. You never quite know what you’re going to get as you wait in the darkness.

It is rather like wildlife photography because you might get the shot you have wanted for years or you might get nothing. Dawn light can range from the most delicate dusky pink to a warm yellow.

Keep an eye on weather forecasts because, if you are lucky enough to live in an area with really cold nights and clear skies, you can sometimes catch wonderful cloud and vapour effects which have disappeared by the time the rest of the world is awake!

3. Imperfection is Fine!

Landscape photography is made especially difficult by the huge dynamic range you encounter. There is no way of controlling light balance in the field.

ND filters sometimes help but I find them fiddly and often not right for the particular location I have chosen. Often I have to reject a magnificent opportunity because there is simply too wide a dynamic range.

I am not a fan of HDR techniques or software. They give themselves away and I feel that they destroy the integrity of the shot. Most shots can be light balanced on the computer. Sometimes, however, the shot is actually better because of impossible dynamic range.


The photo of mussel beds in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand would probably be rejected by most camera club competitions. It might have been possible to grab a little detail from the land but I rather like the mystery of the black geometric block against the hammered silver of the water.

It’s technically a rather poor photograph but it has something that draws you to examine it more closely. Look beyond getting the perfectly lit shot and see the potential of the subject.

4. Look Behind You!

It is so easy to see the money shot and forget to look around.


The photograph of willow trees was taken at dusk at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand. The lake has one of the most beautiful vistas in the world but at dusk the sun is coming from behind the surrounding mountains and they look beautiful but, dare I say, somewhat commonplace.

Having decided that the water/sunset shot was not worth taking, I was walking back to the car when I happened to look behind me and saw the trees.

The obvious shot is not always the best one. Learn to look hard.

5. Make use of Planning Software

I have two pieces of software that are vital for field trips. The first is called The Photographers Ephemeris.

In brief, it allows you to choose any location in the world, on any date and at any time and it shows exactly where the sun will be. You can plan the best day and time to go to a particular location and also decide the exact spot from which to take the shot. If you are serious about landscape photography you need this tool.



The two photographs illustrate how the sun’s position can define the impact and message of your photograph.

The wide angle photo was taken late afternoon in September (early spring in New Zealand). The sun’s reflection on the river turns it to silver but also creates blow out problems.


The other photograph was taken mid morning in July (mid-winter in New Zealand). The other tool which is vital is a 1:50000 map which shows contours.


For New Zealand I use Mapapp NZ SI from the Apple App store. Sat Nav maps are not detailed enough and they don’t have contour details. Any maps that download from the Internet are also useless as I am often out of cell phone range. A good map allows you to guess what the terrain looks like and often gives clues about lines of sight. Being able to make sense of these detailed topographical maps can often save a lot of time driving down dirt roads hoping to find that perfect shot!

6. Equipment is not Important

Better equipment does not produce better photographs any more than a better pen lets you write that great novel you’re planning! Every photographer needs equipment but you should treat it like an author treats their writing implement. It is just a vehicle to transmit what is in your brain to someone else. You need a point of view (see tip one) and then you can use anything from a smart phone to a Nikon D800.


Remember that you compose photographs and the camera takes photographs. The photograph of a misty morning could have been taken on any camera. If you believe that a higher pixel count or a faster, sharper lens helps you compose better photographs then join the techno circus.

7. Don’t try and Paint Landscape with a Camera

There is quite a vogue on the Internet for photographs which have been heavily post processed or which use fashionable techniques like x10 ND filters to make water look like smooth silk.


Why can’t we let nature speak for itself? It does just fine without effects filters. The same applies to the use of image editing software. Used sensitively, it helps the landscape have its own voice. Used crudely, it imposes our decisions about what the landscape should have looked like.

The best photography mines a seam in our conscious and unconscious. That is why heavily photoshopped, idealised versions of landscape often leave us cold. They are telling a story that isn’t really true. We recognise the artifice of the orange sky and super-saturated grass.

These are mute photographs because they don’t speak with their own voice. Photographs with integrity invite us to explore them. Like an abstract painting, a landscape photograph should throw us back to our internal life. Photographs can be metaphors but they should be metaphors created in the mind of the viewer rather than of the photographer.

If you want to create your own version of what the scene looked like then take up painting!

8. Bad weather is Good Weather

Cloud and rain are not the most encouraging weather conditions yet they often present opportunities far more exciting than those of a cloudless day.


The photo of evening rain in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand was taken at the end of a dispiriting day searching for shots. It takes a lot of patience and optimism to drive hundreds of kilometres in the rain but the rewards are there more often than not. If you keep your eyes open there is always something worth photographing.

Interestingly, when this photograph was submitted to an image bank it was rejected on the grounds it had been photoshopped to make it monochrome. It hadn’t been. Nature sometimes surprises with extraordinary effects which aren’t a product of any software programme.

9. Keep going Back

Luck plays a huge part in getting those special shots. If you find a place that offers great potential, keep returning because you will, almost certainly, improve on your first shots.


The photographs of Lake Taniwha, New Zealand were taken five days apart. They both tell a different story and I’m sure the next time I go back it will look different again.


10. Don’t listen to all the advice you get!

Finding your own voice as a photographer means choosing carefully what advice to take.

For example, the conventional wisdom is that you should try and have an object of interest in the foreground of wide landscape shots. This is presumably based on the idea that landscape is far too boring on its own and needs a gazing human or a grazing cow to grab your attention.


If you are going to place an object between your viewer and the landscape than it needs to tell some sort of story. It shouldn’t just be there for the sake of it. The best photography breaks rules.

All of the above can really be summarised in one sentence. Decide what interests you about landscape and then compose and edit your shots in a way that allows the land to speak with its own voice.

Declan is a semi-retired professional photographer living in the South Island of New Zealand. See more of his work on his website.

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Some Older Comments

  • Shane January 2, 2013 04:43 pm

    Thanks for the great tips. I mainly do disk shots (for no other reason than being too lazy to leave a warm bed) but I enjoyed this article.

    Great shots of New Zealand also.

    Have a look at some of my Kiwi memories at http://www.shanemcdonald.me/tag/new-zealand/

  • Todd Morris November 27, 2012 07:52 am

    I should have read this post earlier, before I took a hike up in the hills here in southern Arizona. I took a lot of shots, and once I got back to my room and started looking them over, was happy with pretty much none of them. Then again, I suppose that's just how it goes sometimes. At least I'm still here for a couple more weeks, I so I'll have a few more chances to Keep Going Back (tip #9).

  • Greg Nelson November 27, 2012 07:11 am

    I think those are some great tips for shooting landscapes. I really like that the last tip is to pick and choose the advice that you take.

    The landscape below was taken at my cousin's wedding. It was an outdoor wedding with windchills in the mid 40s. Suffice it to say that it wasn't the most comfortable conditions. I looked out into the field to the north of the ceremony and I didn't feel cold at all. It was about a half an hour before the golden hour but I knew I had to take the shot because I might not have another chance with the wedding going on.


  • Andrew Helms August 25, 2012 01:14 am

    I like this guy! It seems we think alot alike...

  • Michael Hughes August 24, 2012 11:49 pm

    I like this post.

    As a landscape photographer we have to break the rules a bit. If we all follow the perfect exposure super-deep depth of field and 1/3 rules we'll all end up with the same photographs.

    I also prefer the dawn for photography fo rseverla reasons
    1) You get a smug feeling becuase you ahve done something useful while everyone else is still asleep
    2) evenings are for beer and friends

    Oh, yeah, the sunlike is sometimes better too !!

  • Declan August 21, 2012 10:01 am

    Very well observed! I have found over time that I have used my wide angle lens less and less. I tend to frame bits of the landscape in my mind and usually find that I need a telephoto to get the shot I am looking for. Some shots are great for wide angle but I find it tends to flatten everything.

  • Arturomar August 21, 2012 03:22 am

    Thank you Declan for your wondefurl article.

    I've seen your Web site and noticed that most of the pictures appear to be taken with telephoto instead of a wide angle lens.

    Can you elaborate on this?

  • Diane Stresing August 20, 2012 10:00 pm

    Agree with the call for prudence in post-production! Also thank you for sharing such magnificent examples of capturing the light on the land. It's a simple concept I've had trouble grasping...

  • Colin Burt August 20, 2012 09:02 am

    Completely agree with Declan regarding HDR. Some of the tinkering with landscape photographs produces monstrosities in super Technicolour which nature does not contain. As with all post processing that slider should only be moved a millimeter not ten ! I particularly liked, and found instructive, the shots of the same view at different times of day. An entire series from dawn to sunset - say one each hour or so - would also be interesting. Great article Declan .

  • Cindi August 20, 2012 04:48 am

    Thanks for the tips and encouragement for those of us who don't have extensive and expensive equipment but aspire to improve our photography. I love dawn light and often try to catch the light from the water where I live. But evenings often have their own magic, and sometimes midday works too. Here are three of my captures from different times of day:




  • Tiffany August 19, 2012 03:18 am

    I like this quote....."Why can’t we let nature speak for itself? It does just fine without effects filters."

    So many times I see photos so heavily processed that you wonder what part is truely the picture.

  • shiree Taylor-Dunn August 18, 2012 09:04 am

    Beautiful photography. I recently moved from the South Island of NZ, to Australia and these photographs bring it all back to me. Such beauty, and your right. always look behind you when capturing shots. I recently purchased my first Cannon 600D, and enjoying it. I only wish I had it when I was living in NZ. These shots are true to the magnificant scenery, the valleys, Lake Wanaka etc etc. Love them. Shiree

  • Jenny August 17, 2012 06:04 pm

    I like Declan's way of doing things. It's more challenging to capture an interesting landscape than to fiddle and tamper until the scene looks unreal and possibly from another planet.

    I have a how-to book which shows a winter scene with bare trees,yellow grass and a brilliant blue sky; yes, that's how our winters are here, but then he pops a cumulo-nimbus cloud in the sky. That's a summer cloud!
    It's fake and it jars! A high cirrus would be more convincing. We should be looking at the over-all effect.
    Just my tuppence worth!

  • Mark Grauer August 17, 2012 11:48 am

    Thank you for your tips! I am thankful for pros teaching. :)
    I am a professional "Sound Production Guy".
    Been studying and practicing photography for about a year now. Love capturing life.
    That being said....
    In the science of sound, there is never an A, B, C way to record, equalize, process a song or production piece. The basics are simply a foundation with an ever changing structure.

    Is that not true with photography as well? Pertaining to #7, is there ever a time to say never use a filter, a new technique idea, or post experimentation? (as Ansel Adams was a master at in the analog realm)

    Thank you again.


    Mark Grauer

  • James Gonneau August 17, 2012 03:01 am

    A well-written article, with excellent points, and I'm glad that it ends with the best one (ignore advice)!

    I agree with most of it, particular about HDR. I think we all did the usual

    1. Wow!
    2. I can do that!
    3. I've done that
    4. Ok, enough....

    I would disagree with #7, maybe only because my current obsession is Michael Levin (which may pass see above re: HDR). A "pure" landscape is one thing, a fine art print for meditative or decorative purposes is another.

    Thanks for the link for the planner. I've always said that landscape photographers need to be as much weather forecasters and geographers as anything else.

  • Koen De Hauw August 17, 2012 01:23 am

    Of course everybody making pictures is willing to express their emotion of that moment. And of course one needs to know the camera's possibilities. And for sure, sometimes post processing helps to tell the story that one couldn't capture, maybe because of lack of experience or lack of know how. But what stroke me most is the love for your art that speaks through the words. Thank you for that.

  • Roslyn Elms August 14, 2012 09:57 pm

    Beautiful images... though of course this is a subjective assessment, based on what I find beautiful. That is what Art is, and photography is basically Art... Life and images observed and created through the eye of the photographer. Just as Van Gogh and his impressionist compatriots were sniffed at for bucking the realist status quo of the time, photographers today are just learning that there is great freedom in creating images with the camera, with or without software. There are no narrow rules. Some results may be hideous, some beautiful. We should be stretching ourselves, expressing ourselves. Declan's images are beautiful. They are not prescriptive. There were decisions made regarding light, exposure, compostion. All based on his artistic eye. I am all for stretching the limits. Lets just go for it! Isn't there room for all sorts of expression and use of the camera. The tripod, an easel, The camera, providing the canvas, the software - to whatever wonderful extent, the paint. There are may ways of expression using a camera - lets live and learn and stretch the boundaries. As far as I know there is no rule book when it comes to creativity.

  • Puru August 14, 2012 09:14 pm

    I have always found Landscape photography to be a tough one as the camera often doesn't capture what the eyes see. It was a good article to explain some of the things. Some photographs were breathtaking !

  • marius August 14, 2012 03:34 pm

    Good post!
    Some o my pics:

  • Val August 14, 2012 02:29 pm

    Thank you for your very well written article.I am so tired of seeing landscapes that often look like clones of each other

  • Marnie August 14, 2012 10:32 am

    The human eye sees so much more than a camera can capture and I am continually frustrated that I cannot capture the beauty I am seeing with my camera. Occasionally however, it all comes together and I have a photo I love - one that I can say "THIS is what I saw, and THIS is why I loved it"
    I want my landscape photos to make people want to go to that place too. If the lens has been unable to pick up the subtle hues or light that my eye did, then I see nothing wrong with using a little software magic to add that, after all, it was the camera technology that omitted it in the first place.
    I can't paint, that is why I enjoy photography, because it does allow me to capture the image. To me that is what photography is, capturing a single moment in time. I might throw back one of Declan's opinions and say to him "If you want your landscape to throw us back to our internal life, you should take up abstract painting".
    Personally, Declan's landscapes leave me cold and I can see nothing in them to explore, but that is my personal opinion, I never learned to study artwork to discover the hidden nuances so perhaps I am missing the big picture. Sorry Declan.
    I do agree with him that dawn is the best time of day and love his vision of waiting in the darkness, not knowing what you are going to get.
    Tips for landscape photography should be largely limited to technical know how. Declan has some good tips but sadly, they have been almost lost in his own personal opinion of what landscapes should be.

  • Scottc August 14, 2012 09:42 am

    I agree on the weather, often the worse it is the better the photo.


  • Kathy Saunders August 14, 2012 09:41 am

    Thank you for confirming what I've always felt. I don't have the greatest equipment in the world, but I take interesting and realistic photos. After reading this, I feel even better about my methods. :)

  • John August 14, 2012 09:29 am

    First I think you did a great job with this write up you captured some of the most important aspects of getting better landscape photographs. However, I disagree on a few points.

    I think ultimately equipment is important. If you're going to go out and shoot a sunset photograph with a point and shoot and no tripod you're not going to get the same photograph that you could get with a tripod and a DSLR. Yes there are situations where you don't need these things, but in reality just because a better pen doesn't make a better writer, doesn't mean a better writer can't get more out of that better pen.

    Why does a photograph have to portray a real world vision of what we saw? Why can't we show what we wished it looked like? Why can't we, the person who choose to click the shutter, determine how we want the final result to look and still have it be called fine art? After all in point number 10 you go on to say basically that we should discover who we are as a photographer, that we shouldn't listen to conventional wisdom. And I fully agree with this point. If we all conformed to shoot at f/8 and ISO 100 we'd all have the same photograph. I'll never understand why people think that the removal of technology makes a photograph better?

    I think if you know what you're doing both behind the camera and behind the computer you're going to produce something much greater than someone who is pointing and clicking a P&S and dumping the photograph directly onto flickr.

    Anyways... that's just my two cents... and I really do like the way you argued your points so don't take my criticism the wrong way :)

  • Cliff August 14, 2012 07:04 am

    I shall take advice from #10 and disagree with #7 :)

    I would argue that using ND filters and whatnot for water and motion is letting nature speak for itself. When you take a photo it is a snapshot of a moment. Nature is not one instant snapshot, but as you point out, it changes with time. It's filled with things like the movement of water and trees, but often times it's lost in photos.

    Longer exposures with the use of ND filters helps capture the fluidty of a stream f the waves of the ocean.

  • Stephen Carlock August 14, 2012 04:31 am

    Great article! One thing that I have been worried about for some time now is desaturated (read: flat, bland) appearances to my landscape photos, even if that is in fact what the world around me looks like at the time, which results in a lot of post-processing to bring out stronger contrast and "popping" colors. The advice here to let the shot speak for itself and to "give a voice" to the landscape via minimal post-processing is a good but tough pill to swallow in a world where processing seems to win out most of the time. I will consider all of these things as I learn more about landscape photography to be sure, thanks for sharing!

  • rohit kothari August 14, 2012 03:20 am

    wow wonderful landscape pictures delcan even my interested is landscape only but the problem i get is i am not able to do a natural post processing like you do all post processing with color look so natural but with me its different either sky get too much color n water dont or vice versa tutorial in landscape will highly appreciable

  • raghavendra August 14, 2012 02:45 am

    I think these are advices :) keep going back is that i forget

    here's mine

  • steve slater August 14, 2012 02:24 am

    A good post with solid advice. Thank you.
    And nature can speak for itself:


  • Mridula August 14, 2012 01:28 am

    Loved the dawn logic! Loved the tip that let the nature talk on its own and loved the take on placing an object in the foreground. Thank you for such a beautiful post.