3 Steps to Gorgeous Landscape Images

3 Steps to Gorgeous Landscape Images


A Guest Contribution by Todd Sisson – author of our Landscape Photography and Landscape Photography Post Processing eBooks.

During the writing of Living Landscapes, I was forced to do some heavy thinking about how I approach creative landscape composition in the field. At this juncture, it is important to note that I avoid heavy thinking at all costs. Thinking truly is the hardest work, especially when you are attempting to simplify a process that is almost instinctual to you.

However, my fear of hard thinking is eclipsed by my fear of Editorial wrath, so I set aside a day, dusted off a tantric chants CD and retired to my sweat-lodge teepee for some quality time with sub-conscious me. Thirteen hours later I emerged, 12 kg lighter and armed with two revelations, the first; I approach landscape composition as a three step process. The second; my sub-conscious is a freaky place that is best avoided in the future.

Luckily for you, it is the brief overview of the first revelation that I shall share with you here today; the three component steps to creating a successful landscape image:

  • Choose a subject
  • Find the right light
  • Create a composition

NZ NO Pataua South 4 1Successful landscape images result from a combination of interesting subject matter, quality light and a strong composition. This particular image nicely illustrates the point that you don’t need towering mountain peaks, blazing sunsets and extraordinary foreground features to make a pleasing image.

Choosing a Great Subject

Not everything in nature is destined to make a great photo. It is our job as a photographer to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify subject matter that will translate beautifully into the two dimensional constraints of the photographic medium.

To my mind, the best landscape subjects convey visual themes such as ‘energy’, ‘grandeur’ and ‘tranquility’ to the viewer. Mountains, bodies of water and coastlines all make happy hunting grounds for photographers because, as viewers, we instinctively know how to interpret these scenes. We sub-consciously know that a snow covered mountain peak must be big, or that a wave crashing on rocks is imparting large amounts of energy, and we know, without thinking, that a reflection on a pond occurs only under calm conditions. In short, we can easily ‘read’ these types of photograph.

NZ WA Lake Wanaka Willow Reflection 01The best photographic subjects communicate multiple visual themes and have a very broad appeal as a result. To me this scene speaks of tranquility (reflections), natural change (Fall color and the building cloud cover) and stoicism (the lone tree clinging to life on the outer limits of it’s natural environment). You may ‘read’ this scene quite differently depending upon your outlook on life – for example, a hardcore environmentalist may see no more than an introduced species of tree clogging a lake that has been flooded by unsustainable farming practices in the lake’s headwaters. Photography, and life for that matter, is a very subjective affair…

You don’t need to travel to Nepal (or New Zealand, for that matter, to find great photographic fodder. Sure, it is lot easier to make interesting landscape images when surrounded by Tolkien-esque mountains but subjects don’t need to be grand in scale to make great images, they just need to be visually interesting. Learn to seek form, patterns or color in a scene and you may well find a subject from which to create a landscape image.

Sisson Wanaka 29To me, this is a visually interesting image despite the absence of towering mountains, lightning bolts and grazing Unicorns. I was initially drawn by the beautiful evening pastels and the earth shadow (the blue line in the sky near the horizon) but I needed something to ‘anchor’ the shot. The strong geometric pattern and form of the Spaniard grass created a terrific foreground element for the composition. By getting low and getting close an ultrawide lens the grass gains ‘visual weight’ – compare it to the nearly identical grasses a couple of yards back.

Seek the Right Light

I would happily argue that great light is the single most important element in a successful landscape image. In fact, I dedicated a significant number of ePages in Living Landscapes to doing just that. Great light is truly transformative.

Fortunately, seeking great light doesn’t entail shooting only Ferrari-red sunsets. In fact, I will pull out the camera in almost any light if it complements a scene. The skill is learning to judge what constitutes the best possible lighting conditions for a given location – this is where you have to practice the art of observation and pre-visualization to judge how the sun will play out during the course of the day. I use digital tools to assist in this process, namely Focalware, which is a nifty little app that shows the arc of the sun and moon throughout the day with freakish accuracy.

Before afterGreat light is transformative. In Living Landscapes I detail the many steps and decisions that led from the scouting shot on the left to several portfolio-grade images of this scene.

Create a Composition

Composition is where it all comes together artistically. You may have lined up an amazing subject and be blessed with a veritable pyrotechnics show in the sky but if you combine these in a dreary, sloppy and uninspiring composition all is wasted.

I personally divide landscape compositions into two broad (and absolutely unscientifically defined) categories;

  • Dynamic landscape compositions
  • Static landscape compositions

Dynamic compositions are the show ponies of the landscape photography world. They employ a suite of visual ploys to imbue an image with an almost 3-D feel and/or impart a sense of dynamic energy. Dynamic compositions used to be difficult to create in ye olde film days but the learning curve is vastly accelerated by the digital workflow and easy access to educational information such as this dPS blog post written by yours truly.

NZ CO cathedral cove 6Show pony. Dynamic compositions employ techniques such as leading lines, motion blur and vivid colors to draw the viewer’s attention into the frame.

Static compositions subscribe to a more traditional photographic aesthetic and, I feel, are more faithful to the two-dimensional constraints of the art form – most of Ansel Adams’ images would be considered static as opposed to dynamic compositions. I have a personal preference for beautifully executed static compositions – probably because I am fairly ancient, in internet years at least…

Static compositions rely upon a more subtle repertoire of visual techniques to achieve a sense of drama. Successful static compositions use a combination of layers, contrast, texture, form, localized lighting and color to engage the viewer.

NZ WR Sunset SheepNo place for show ponies. Static compositions such as this rely upon layers of visual interest, form and spot lighting to succeed.

Mixing it Up

It is important to note that there is no particular order for executing these three steps. I will often stumble across great light (always it seems when driving with a car full of tired & hungry kids ) and then have to find a subject and a composition to capitalize upon the situation. This is, of course, where strong craft and technical skills kick in – readers of Living Landscapes will know that I promote a policy of keeping it simple with regards to camera settings and technical considerations, this allows me to work fast and seek out compositions – even while being bombarded with requests for snacks from the back seat!

Todd & Sarah Sisson are full-time landscape photographers based in Central Otago New Zealand.

Their work can be found as fine art prints & canvas prints at www.sisson.co.nz  They can be found on FacebookGoogle Plus and Twitter.

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Some Older Comments

  • Ricardo August 9, 2013 02:54 am

    Very cool article! Quick, concise and to the point.

    Thank you!

  • John August 6, 2013 07:50 am

    I've been seeing a lot of overly-HDR'd shots lately. Our local (San Diego) County Fair judges thousands of shots and then allows the public to pick their Favorite of the Fair. The shot they picked was WAY over done vis a vis HDR, reminding me of when Velvia was introduced in the late 80's. Its over-the-top saturation was far beyond "real" but nature photographers used nothing but Velvia from then on and our eye-brain connections liked/likes it. I hope the "let's over-do-it-because-we-can" trend doesn't continue; I think that photos are PHOTOS and not a representation of everything the eye can perceive (and beyond.) How is THAT art? Using HDR is great but needs (again, IMHO) to be used appropriately... which for me, at least, means 'kept at a minimum.'

  • Todd Sisson August 6, 2013 07:08 am


    Hi folks. I see that a number of you are interested in the gear used and shooting data for each of the shots - here goes:

    Image 1 (Coastal scene): Nikon D800, A-FS 17-35 f/2.8 nikkor at 17mm. f/11, 1/20th, ISO 100. Marumi Polariser.
    Image 2 (reflected tree): Nikon D2X, 12-24mm f/4 DX nikkor at 12mm. f/11, 1/10th, ISO 100, Heliopan polariser.
    Image 3 (spaniard grass): Nikon D7000, 12-24mm f/4 DX nikkor at 12mm. f/13, 6 seconds, ISO 100, Long exposure noise reduction, Marumi polariser.
    Image 4 (Lupins sunset - right image): Nikon D7000, 12-24mm f/4 DX nikkor at 13mm. f/13, 4 seconds, ISO 100, Long exposure noise reduction, Marumi polariser.
    Image 5 (sunstar & rock): Nikon D7000, 12-24mm f/4 DX nikkor at 12mm. f/16, 1/5th, ISO 100, Marumi polariser.
    Image 6 (sheep at sunset): Nikon D800, A-FS 70-200mm f/2.8 VRii nikkor at 70mm. f/8, 1/50th, ISO 100. Marumi Polariser.

    I hope that helps - you can read more about our equipment here: http://bit.ly/13pzAWw

    Cheers - Todd

  • Jim August 3, 2013 06:39 am

    Looking to purchase my first wide angle lens. What's your favorite lens for shooting landscapes?

  • Cheryl Garrity August 3, 2013 02:51 am


    I enjoyed reading your article. Your 3 components are right on target; subject, light & composition. You have inspired me to examine the creative process for my best photographs.

    As to how I create my photographs, it varies. Sometimes I start by seeing great light and then attempt to find a good subject. Even though I have my camera with me most of the time, often I fail in my attempts since good light is temporary. At other times I begin with the subject and plan to find good light by going out before sunrise or sunset and wait for the light to evolve. Sometimes this works. In this case, I may have the composition planned but may have to change it based on how the light falls. The best scenario is to be at the location of a great subject at the best time and with the best composition already set. This works if I have scouted the site previously. Mother Nature is fickle and this doesn’t always work, but it improves the odds of getting a good photograph.

    In my mind, the light and subject always come before composition. So which does come first, the light or the subject? The answer is as elusive as the unending quandary, “Which comes first the chicken or the egg?” It depends on how you look at it.

  • Jaylyn August 3, 2013 02:07 am

    Youre a genius..i wish i have a perfect camera and lens for every beautiful places that ive been. Your an inspiration.

  • Pieter August 2, 2013 08:14 pm

    Beautiful lighting and colours in the last image! Thanks for sharing!

  • Barbara August 2, 2013 06:26 pm

    Notwithstanding the helpful tips above, as an enthusiastic amateur, I find that I go through phases - largely influenced by what I see around me. ie., I am drawn to trying something different to 'what everyone else is doing'. I very quickly get 'over' hyper saturated colour, milky (slow shutter speed) water, looming clouds (Lightroom drop down filters), HDR/image stacking, dominant leading lines (those endless receding roads/ jetties!!) etc etc. There certainly are fashions in photography!
    Images can be factual, pretty, awe-inspiring, emotive...or a combination thereof. the real challenge is to make the (maximum number of ) viewers linger in it.

    Thank you for your article, Todd

  • marius2die4 August 2, 2013 04:44 pm

    You have very good photos. Tkx for sharing with us you tips!

    Some of my pics:

  • Irol Trasmonte August 2, 2013 03:44 pm

    By following these 3 steps, I think you can never go wrong in taking stunning landscape photos. As a landscape photography fan myself, coming up with amazing photos is just half the fun, it is being outdoors with nature looking for that perfect angle and the right lighting that makes the whole process really worthwhile.

    I have come up with my own collection of beautiful landscape/nature photographs that exemplifies the techniques described in this Article.


  • Simon August 2, 2013 01:49 pm

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading that. It really makes sense to me.

  • Lee Lobban August 2, 2013 12:36 pm

    I have a photo of that same tree, but in black and white and with a very misty background. There are no visible features in the background. This is the second time I have come across this tree on the web. Previously it was on Trey Ratcliff's website, " Stuck in Customs." Lee.

  • Les Boucher August 2, 2013 10:27 am

    I think that David is missing the leading lines in the second photo. You have the clouds, the reflection of the tree, and the horizon. All these are subtly leading your eye into the main subject...the tree. Once again, as with all photography, it is subjective and a mater of personal taste of what appeals to the eye of the viewer and (more importantly if you are entering competitions) the judge or judges.

    You will find that many of my photographs http://www.redbubble.com/people/lesboucher?ref=artist_title_name
    Have this feature but there are always exceptions to the rule in every thing (especially when dealing with judges ;~) ) LOL

  • Fernando Romero August 2, 2013 10:19 am

    Very nice composition and lighting. The subjects are marvelous. There are all the components to a memorable photograph to all the examples here I am marveled by them. There is one thing that I think was left off or at least I did not find. It was the small portion to the equation to a great shot. " The equipment". What lens did you use? The hour of the shot? and what setting was use on your camera? according to the available light. I guess, the rest of the camera setup will fall in place according to fine tune the composition. Thank you so much for the strong motivation to perhaps shot the shot in the near future.

  • Gavin August 2, 2013 10:07 am

    love the sheep photo. sublime.

  • Keith Chesworth August 2, 2013 06:43 am

    Whilst I agree with most of the article, the problem for many is stark. Subject is what is about you when you land at a place. Composition is what you can do with what is there, especially if there are crowds about who seem hell bent on blocking or nudging you or your tripod if you dare to use one in such conditions. Lighting is what you have then, you will be long gone in an hour. Basically I find that I am reduced to catch as catch can most of the time unless on home turf, say a 50 mile radius, or staying somewhere where a return may be possible.
    Taking a super saturation of shots in camera raw, then sorting them out and merging where reasonable back home

  • n shack August 2, 2013 06:30 am

    It would be nice to see camera / lens used and settings.

  • David August 2, 2013 06:12 am

    Imagine that second photo, the one with the single tree on the left reflected in water, as a vertical. With only about the left 2/5 of the photograph. I think it would be much more powerful without the washed out right-hand side of the photo.

  • eYSIGHT August 2, 2013 05:09 am

    The art to good landscape is not photography. It's more difficult - yet more simple. You first need to find the image in your eye, simple! Capturing it on digital is the easy bit. Digital is not a Colt revolver - it has not made all photographers equal - you need to understand strong light, quality of composition - like these images all show and this will hopefully demonstrate to the viewer the difference between quality and snapshot - if only the buyers understood this! Above all, the one lesson I have learned over the years is a simple, yet difficult one. To say no! We all get too enthusiastic to take the shot. If the view is good but the light etc. wrong, leave it and return. Yes, that has to be the real pro's rule - when to say no - it's just to good enough.

    Love the images - if all Kiwi, envious, me - the Highlands of Scotland over looking Loch Ness, but with family on north island and dream of going to experience it. We have the same challenges here - great light when it's there and too much rain when its there! eYSIGHT Photography, Inverness.

  • G.Allan Carver August 2, 2013 04:34 am

    For years I shot lousey landscape and I could not figure out why, becuse the scenes were so incredible to experience personally. Then an article such as this and a teacher telling me to close one eye to see the scene in two dimensions helped tremendously. I still "frame the intended subect with my hands before looking through the lens. A very good article on basics that are easily overlooked. Thanks

  • Todd Sisson August 1, 2013 09:44 am

    Thanks all! glad to hear that this was helpful (to some of you, at least!)

    Cheers - Todd

  • raghavendra August 1, 2013 03:14 am

    Light is important for all kinds of photography,
    How do you make people to stay in that picture matters!


  • Steve July 31, 2013 05:20 pm

    Symmetry and reflections


  • ScottC July 31, 2013 08:27 am

    Great article and incredible photos.


  • Elindaire July 31, 2013 04:28 am

    Great tips on the foundation of good landscape photography; subject, lighting and composition.


  • Kevin July 31, 2013 03:22 am



    The light wasn't the greatest as it was midday, but still with the right elements you can make nice shots

  • Mridula July 31, 2013 02:54 am

    For me light has been missing all these days. I actually went to Nepal but in June to do the Annapurna Circuit trek. And guess what it rained and rained. Good thing is I live in India so I will go back again. Great tips.


  • Brian Fuller July 31, 2013 02:20 am

    Love that second photo. Unfortunately there is very little scenic landscapes in my area. Very flat and very benign. I'd have to drive a good ways to get good subject.
    I completely agree on the lighting. Our small backyard is relatively nice, but at sunrise it is gorgeous (relatively). At sunset, it is ok, but a tree blocks much of the light so it isn't as nice as sunrise where the golden light flows over everything.