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Have you ever turned up to an interesting location to take landscape photos but been unable to make the most of it? You’re not alone – most photographers struggle to capture the magic they see with their eyes in a photo at one point or another.
When this happens it’s a good idea to get back to basics. You could even make a checklist – beautiful light, great subject, foreground interest, vary the composition, keep coming back. Let’s take a look at these ideas in more detail.
The first tip is the simplest of all. Make sure you are on location when the light is the most beautiful. This is very important. It may take an effort to be on location either early in the morning or late in the evening to capture the raking light of golden hour, but the results are always worth it. I took the photo above shortly after sunset, the rocks had caught the glow of the fading light. You can only get photos like this by being on location at the right time.
Sometimes the weather is unpredictable and you don’t get the quality of light you were hoping for. In that case, your only option is to return when the light is better.
Another thing to watch out for is dramatic light caused by bad weather. This is by its nature fleeting, and difficult to capture, but you will be rewarded with beautiful, dramatic light when it pays off. I took the photo below from a lookout point in Tupiza, Bolivia. I had to run to take cover from the storm a few seconds later, but I got the photo.
An essential landscape photography skill is matching light to the subject and technique. If you’re working in color then the quality of light is very important, and most scenes require you to be there at the extreme ends of the day to capture the most beautiful light.
But some types of landscapes photograph better when it’s cloudy or even raining. Good examples are forests and waterfalls. The soft even lighting is perfect for revealing textures and hidden details.
Another type of landscape photography often done in cloudy light is black and white long exposure seascapes. The sea goes soft and misty, and the clouds are also streaked or blurred, giving you a surreal image that looks very different from one taken in direct sunlight.
This is only broad, sweeping advice because there are many ways of composing a landscape photo, but it helps if you decide what the main focal point is going to be and then arrange the composition around that.
For example, the main focal point of the photo below is the tor (a tor is a granite rock stack found in Dartmoor in southwest England).
I have made it central to the composition by moving in close, and by simplifying the composition.
Always remember that you can often improve the composition of your landscape photos by moving closer to the main subject and simplifying the composition. This approach helps eliminate distractions and make your photos clearer and more powerful.
You have arrived on location when the light is beautiful and identified the main subject. The next question to answer is how are you going to guide the viewer’s eye through the photo to the most important parts?
One technique is to include something interesting in the foreground for the eye to look at, that encourages the eye to move through the photo to the main subject. This works even better if you can find some kind of line to take the eye through the frame.
The aim is to find a harmonious composition where all parts of the image work together. Ideally, your foreground is interesting enough to look at, but not so interesting or striking that it pulls the eye away from the main subject. Think of the main subject as the star actor of the scene, and foreground interest as the supporting cast.
This photo is a nice example because the rocks in the foreground frame the cliffs in the distance. They give you something interesting to look at in the bottom third of the photo, but they don’t take attention away from the cliffs, which are the main focal point.
Once you have photographed the landscape using the most obvious composition, it is time to work the subject and come up with different compositions. You can vary your approach by changing the focal length of your lens and your point of view (the height of your tripod and the angle from which you are shooting).
As examples, here are two more photos I took of the tor in the earlier photo. One includes a person (and the moon), the other is taken in a vertical orientation.
Once you’ve found a location with photographic potential you should visit it as often as you can, at different times of the year and in different lighting conditions. If the location is truly special you will find different compositions and different ways of photographing it every time you return.
It’s surprising how much the light and weather vary throughout the seasons. As you get to know your chosen location better you will appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the changing light.
These three photos were taken at the same location on different days. Each time I went the light and weather were different. This helps build a series of photos with more variety and depth than is possible to capture on a single visit.
Landscape photography is a tough discipline because it relies on the light and weather. But follow these five tips and you’ll find yourself taking better photos and capturing the magic of the landscape. If you have any questions or thoughts about landscape photography then please share them in the comments below, I’d love to hear them.
If you’d like to learn more about landscape photography then please check out my ebook The Black & White Landscape.