4 Essential Ingredients for Great Landscape Photographs

4 Essential Ingredients for Great Landscape Photographs


When you are out in the field and you’re not sure if your the image you are making is any good, go through this quick mental checklist to see if your image contains these four essential ingredients.

1. Good Light

Light is by far the most important element of a landscape photograph. A photograph of a stunning location taken in harsh mid-day light will fall flat. A photograph of a boring location taken at that perfect moment when the light is magical will turn into a unique and memorable photograph.

I don’t actually believe that there is any kind of light that is inherently bad. You just have to know what to do with the light conditions that you are given.

Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia, USA, by Anne McKinnell.

Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia, USA.

The golden hour light of sunrise and sunset are usually a favourite time for photographers. My favourite time is the blue hour: twilight. It’s hard to go wrong with these two types of light.

When you have a day with bright harsh sunlight, take advantage of the opportunity to look for interesting shadows.

The white sky of an overcast day is an excellent time to photograph close-ups.

And what about those stormy days? Those can be the best of all with the dramatic clouds that accompany a storm.

2. Main Subject

The next thing is to make sure you have a main subject. That may sound pretty obvious but keep it in mind. You may find yourself, as I sometimes do, making an image of some general landscape without a clear subject. It’s just some land with some trees and maybe some water. You need to decide what the subject is and that will help you make an image that is more compelling.

Little Finland, Nevada, USA, by Anne McKinnell.

Little Finland, Nevada, USA.

When I get to a location I like to think of what it is about that place that grabbed my attention and I make that the main subject. That’s not to say you cannot then turn your attention to another main subject later, but if you have too many subjects in your scene, none of them with be the main subject and your image will be too general to be interesting.

While we’re thinking about the main subject, what is it about that subject that you like? Having descriptive words in your head when you are making an image will help you focus and bring that description into the image. What is it about the lake you like? Is it the reflection? The shape? The peacefulness? How it is so clear you can see the bottom? Not only will this help you convey meaning in your image, but it will help you write about it later.

3. Clean Background

Just as important as the main subject is what is behind it.

Clutter and distracting elements can ruin an otherwise good image. This is where perspective becomes important. You must find an angle to photograph your subject so there are no distracting elements in the background. That can mean getting up high and shooting down on your subject so the background is filled with only one texture, or getting low and shooting upwards so the background is filled with only sky.

Try to isolate your subject and simplify the image as much as possible.

Steptoe Butte in the Palouse Hills of Washington, USA, by Anne McKinnell.

Steptoe Butte in the Palouse Hills of Washington, USA.

4. Interesting Composition

I like to think of photography as the opposite of painting. Painters start with a blank canvas and start adding things to it, whereas photographers are presented with a scene full of details and must start eliminating things from it until it contains only the most important elements of the scene. Then, those elements must be arranged to create an interesting graphic design.

Remember the building blocks of composition that you can rely on to create interesting graphic designs:

The “trick,” if there is one, is to make all four of these things come together. It will take patience, perseverance, and a little luck.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • JeffZ of jeffwasthere,com July 9, 2013 12:21 pm

    Love all the photos!...

  • nir July 3, 2013 01:49 am

    I wish I had these tools 2 years back. I drove cross country into Yellowstone and a bunch national park. I took great photos but I always blamed my 60d canon for that. Thanks for the insight.

  • Anne McKinnell July 2, 2013 03:23 am

    @Jan Yes, I would totally agree that the painter certainly has an image in his/her mind and there is a lot photographers can learn about art from the master painters. But I don't think that the image the painter has in their mind contains dead shrubs in the foreground or broken down ugly cars in the background. That's what I'm getting at. A painter can imagine and paint what they want. A photographer must find a way to photograph the scene that is in front of them in such as way as to remove the clutter that may be there.

  • Anne McKinnell July 2, 2013 03:18 am

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments about the article, I'm so glad that you found it helpful and informative.

    @rakshit There is no HDR processing in any of the images in this post. I'm sorry you feel it is "clearly evident" but you are mistaken. These images have barely any processing at all. I usually add a bit of sharpening and a bit of clarity. It's all about being there during the good light.

    @victor If you never see images like this in real life, then I refer you back to tip #1: Good light. You can't go in the middle of a bright afternoon and expect to get colours like this. For the first image in particular, I remember walking on the beach while it was still black outside and enduring thousands of bug bites to be there for the first light. And yes, it really did look like that, but only for a moment before it was gone.

  • Rakshit Tirumala July 2, 2013 01:22 am

    Actually, what Victor should have said was HDR. Not post-processing. If the mentioned ingredients would do, why the need for the HDR and postprocessing as is clearly evident in the first two pics.

    They look great. No argument there. Just that the author should clearly mention that it has been done so that people don't get mislead by the tips in the article.

  • Debopam Banerjee July 1, 2013 12:50 pm

    Very good points shared with some wonderful photographs...... Thank you Anne......

  • Stacie July 1, 2013 09:59 am

    I couldn't agree more with these four key elements in landscape photography! great info

  • Michael Fischer June 30, 2013 04:22 pm

    Anne McKinnell - as usual - is the BEST.
    Heaps to learn from her technique and lifestyle.

  • Edith levy June 30, 2013 05:24 am

    O always enjoy your articles Anne. Great job.

  • Laura @Travelocafe June 30, 2013 03:11 am

    Lately I have been thinking to learn more about landscape photography. I stumbled by chance over your post and I think it's a good start.

  • marius2die4 June 30, 2013 02:48 am

    Thank you for this very helpful article.

    Some of my landscape:

  • Nick June 29, 2013 01:37 am

    Thank for your tips supported by your wonderful landscape shots.

  • Mridula June 29, 2013 12:52 am

    I love landscape photography and can't read enough on it.


  • Rikki June 28, 2013 11:30 pm

    Victor, were you embarrassed? While there's a truth in what you say about over processing and over engineering, I don't agree that landscape photographers are the only ones guilty of doing this. What about portrait photographers who enhance facial features, fine art photographers who use long exposures and filters to "engineer" their shot, macro photographers who take photos of a world we don't often "see" with the naked eye, and the hordes of instagramers out there who use the app to turn their photos into (I honestly don't know what they turn their photos into, but it's some kind of a cult)...??? What exactly did you prove by posting that comment in a straightforward, informational and very helpful article? If there's anyone who's supposed to be ashamed here its not the landscape photographers, that's for sure.

  • shane June 28, 2013 04:20 pm

    Sorry, typo! Anne, I mean!

  • shane June 28, 2013 04:19 pm

    Anna, your pics are superb - love the last one especially! :)

  • Dave Weckwerth June 28, 2013 02:59 pm

    Well done and concise . would like more. I live in flatland usa and have a hard timr finding good landscape places unless I drive an hour or so .

  • Jan Polatschek June 28, 2013 09:44 am

    "Painters start with a blank canvas and start adding things to it,"
    I disagree. The canvass may be blank but I believe the painter already has his image in mind. The same for a composer.
    Many photography concepts have been followed by artists for several centuries. Years ago I took an art appreciation course. It has greatly helped me with my photography, especially with composition and light.

  • Sue Stevens June 28, 2013 08:10 am

    Meant to say "love" not
    move in my earlier comment

  • Sue Stevens June 28, 2013 08:08 am

    Anne,move the article. Thanks for the tips. I've actually been to little Finland. I loved it. Unfortunately the day I went was overcast but I got a very similar photo without the pretty blue skies that are in your photo. I love that you can travel around to photograph our beautiful country.

  • Jeff E Jensen June 28, 2013 07:59 am

    Great pointers, Anne!

    here's a couple of recent images that I think work well:


  • Dave Clapp June 28, 2013 05:43 am

    Very to the point and well described. This will help me.

  • Russ Bishop June 28, 2013 05:13 am

    Nice article Anne on these important points - and great images to illustrate!

  • Lee June 28, 2013 03:34 am

    Very nice lesson!

  • Ken June 28, 2013 03:06 am

    A very clear presentation and a logical approach that anyone can use to advantage. Thank you.

  • Victor June 28, 2013 03:00 am

    Sorry, couldn't help it. Ingredient 5: Over-process to embarrass the hell out of the beginning photographer who never "sees" images like this in real life. I find landscape photographers to be the worst offenders at over-engineering local contrast, sharpening, and the colours.

  • Mary Martindale June 28, 2013 02:25 am

    Thank you for this article. It was very helpful.

  • Steve June 27, 2013 06:11 pm

    Try some different styles


  • Cramer Imaging June 27, 2013 02:11 pm

    Thanks Anne. I've been learning some of these lessons myself and teaching them to a friend who is a beginner in photography. She wants to do landscapes. On some of your suggestions, many's the time I find something cool in the field only to come home and wonder what in the world I took that picture (or series of pictures) for as there is not a main subject. Another point I have been learning is that, while we can fix a lot in Photoshop and the like, it is far better to not have to fix it at all. Occasionally, there is that photograph that would be so great if it weren't for that _____ (fill in the blank) which no amount of healing, patch tooling, clone stamping, etc. can remove cleanly or easily.