If you’re like me and love great landscape photography, then you’ve probably wondered how the same photographers seem to be able to pull off beautiful shots of sweeping mountain vistas or incredible black and white images of rolling hills and valleys. It’s as if they have some secret formula for “getting lucky” time and time again. Have you ever thought about what goes into making a strong landscape photograph? The techniques, the composition, the timing, the tools?
The fact is, there is no secret formula for making better photos of landscapes. There’s almost always much more that goes into the task than simply snapping a picture of a pretty place. Most great landscape photos are made in beautiful places but that doesn’t mean that every picture of beautiful scenery is a great landscape. While there are no concrete “rules” for doing solid landscape photography there are a few ways to strengthen your landscape work and make those “awesome shots” happen more frequently.
#1 – Construct Interesting Elements
I once had a professor of photography tell me that any photograph could be judged by how much information it contained. It’s easy to say that a successful landscape photo shows the beauty and majesty of a place, but the truth is there is so much more. When setting up for your photo, pay attention to everything that falls within the frame. Look for interesting foreground elements such as trees or rocks, water, even people or animals.
Look for ways to add more information to the photograph. Generally, the more you fill the frame with interesting elements the more interesting and appealing the overall photograph will be. But there is also a flip side to this concept as sometimes less is more. There are times when you must know what to NOT include in order to give a better feel to the photo. Look at this photo from a blustery winter morning.
The feelings of solitude and isolation are brought about by the use of empty space. More on composing your landscape photos a little later.
#2 – Lighting
Yes, yes…I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “chasing the light” when it comes to making good photos. This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography. There’s a reason why photographers love to shoot in the early morning hours (ugh) or in the waning light of the afternoon or late evening.
It comes down to the quality of light which again, adds more interest to a landscape. When you have beautiful light, the entire landscape is transformed into something different. It becomes less ordinary and more extraordinary.
As much as it pains me, getting up early and staying out late is virtually a necessity for landscape photographers. The reason being is that some of the most gorgeous golden light comes in the late afternoon as the sun gives way to night. Just as true, the early morning “Blue Hour” as the first glimpses light begin to appear, is another prime time for shooting landscapes.
Even locations that seem somewhat lackluster at midday can take on an entirely new feel in the late or early hours of the day. So be sure to try out different spots at daybreak and sundown. There’s a good reason why we landscape junkies really do chase the light.
#3 – Composition
The very word “composition” describes the nature of how something’s parts are constructed or arranged together. Having all the best ingredients doesn’t help you much if you don’t know how to put them all together into an awesome cake, a beautiful symphony, or in your case…a strong landscape photograph. The way you compose the elements in your landscapes can often make or break the photograph. Again, there are no actual rules to composing your photo but there are some tried and true practices.
Adjust the horizon so that it isn’t exactly in the middle of the frame and place foreground or background elements off-center to add interest and make stronger images.
It helps to use imaginary lines such as the Rule of Thirds (again, not exactly a rule) to help compose your image.
Just as importantly, always remember to shoot your landscapes in accordance with how they “feel”. Composition in landscape photography is about conveying a feeling, not just how the scene looks. Shoot different compositions of the same location until you find one that works best for that particular landscape.
#4 – Gear and Technical Considerations
While a successful landscape photo doesn’t rely on having the latest or greatest gear, there are a few gear and technical aspects that make for better photos. Here are a few tips.
Use a wider lens
Even though many solid landscape photos can be shot at long focal lengths using zoom lenses, generally short focal length (wider angle) lenses work best. Wide angle lenses allow you to include more into the frame of your photo.
Use smaller apertures
Continuing on from lenses, using a smaller aperture increases the depth of field and brings more elements into focus. Remember, the larger the F-Number the smaller the physical aperture of the lens becomes.
….and wait for it…..
Use a tripod
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know that when it comes to landscape photography I believe a sturdy tripod is worth its weight in gold. Reducing motion as much as possible is key for obtaining sharper landscape photographs. Using a tripod helps to eliminate as much camera shake as possible. This becomes important because generally the smaller apertures used in landscape photography call for longer shutter speeds which make hand holding the camera less desirable.
A successful landscape photo is a careful construction of multiple ingredients. Knowing what to include (or exclude from your photo) and understanding when the best light happens, go a long way to making a better image.
Just as importantly, knowledge of how to compose the elements in the frame and what techniques or gear will be needed are both essential to “getting lucky” time and time again. Producing stronger landscapes takes patience and a little planning but it is well worth the effort.