Landscape photographs seem like they should be easy to create, especially since every day of our lives we travel in and out of different types of landscapes. However, landscape photography is harder than it appears sometime because we see it everyday…ironic I know. How many times have you come across a beautiful scene and you were compelled to photographed it, but after you have left the location the photograph seems dull and flat? The photograph just doesn’t match the pzazz that you remember the scene having. How many times have you left the photographs on the memory card in your camera for months or years before ever uploading them to the computer, looked at them and felt nothing or even momentarily ponder “why in the world you took that photograph?” There are two things that could happen to that lifeless photograph; either it will be deleted instantly or it will sit on your computer wasting space. The photograph will never be printed or hung on the wall for inspiration. The truth is, landscape photography is more difficult than it seems. The difficulties in shooting landscapes can be caused by a few very simple factors, such as composition. But first and for most a good frame of mind needs to be set before any shoot.
Your State of Mind
Part of reason why we are drawn to any scene is because of the existence of three dimensions. Everything from the foreground as far as the eye can see is taken in by our eyes, calculated by our brains and than an emotional charge is invoked by it. Our eyes can judge distance and see the layers of landscape which gives the scene depth and scale. Our eyes and brain can judge the size of an area, the height or width of a building, and we can see the tonal changes between the shadows and highlights of every object in front of us. Whether you are aware of it or not, your brain is in hyper drive trying to process the scene and producing chemicals to enhance your emotional attachment to what you are seeing. When you add in a handy dandy piece of equipment, such as a digital camera, those emotional factors and the ease of camera equipment can sometime over ride the thought process of plotting out your shoot; thus resulting in mundane photographs.
When I first started exploring photography, I found this to be a slight problem for me, because I was cooped up for so long healing from the car accident. I would get overly excited to be out of the house exploring and shooting. I would fill my days with a list of things I would like to see or do when I got to my shoot location. However, because I crammed so much in I would always get to each location right before the event would start such as sunset, sunrise or the light hitting an area just right at a certain time. Arriving to the scene in this manner didn’t allow me time to set up or even truly “see” the scene. So later when I got home and reviewed the images, I would be disappointed with the vast majority of the resulting photographs.
Best Practice: I have learned over the years that it is best practice for me to arrive early to take time to really “look” at the scene before ever taking my camera out of the bag. If things aren’t right then I move to another location.
The mechanical Flaws
Our eyes take in everything that is around us; this includes things in our peripheral vision. Even though the objects in our peripheral vision are not in our main focus area our brains still take them in and process them with the scene to build the layers of dimensions for us. However, a cameras can not do that. It simply takes in the main focus of the scene and creates a two dimensional image.
The second flaw of a camera is it’s metering system. Going into the details of metering could be a whole article on its own, so I’m going to give you the gist of it for now. The cameras meter is a gizmo built into your camera to guide you in setting your cameras aperture, shutter speed, and ISO levels so that you can shoot the scene with the light that is available at that moment. The meter is based on an 18% gray scale; meaning that it is going to judge the scene and compare how intense the light is, as well as how dark the shadows are against 18% gray; the mid point in the tonal scale. Based on those results the camera will then guess what the proper settings should be to capture the details in the highlights and low lights with the light that is available on your scene. This can be very frustrating to work with at times because a metering can be tricked very easily, especially if your shooting in less than perfect light, shooting into the sun, night shooting, shooting with over cast skies….etc…did I mention that the meter can be frustrating ;)?!
Best Practice: Your best bet in learning how to work with your meter is to take a shot with the settings the camera recommends and then base your opinion off of that. Use your zoom feature to zoom in on different areas of the image. Ask yourself “Is there enough details in the light and dark areas?” At this point you should have a rough idea of how you want the scene to look in your photograph. Change your settings to compensate where the camera’s guess is lacking and take the shot again; repeat as needed.
Finally, because we have spent our entire lives looking at these different landscapes, continuous light changes, and the objects or elements in scenes; we become accustom or numb to seeing them. In doing so, we tend to overlook the vast majority of the smaller details that make up the whole scene very quickly. This is where watching for composition elements comes into play. These elements are what can “WOW” not only you but the viewer of the photograph.
Find the Lines
There are lines everywhere, from the building in an urban landscape or a winding roadway to a naturally carved mountain and gorge. Try to pay attention to the lines and see where they lead your eyes to; you may be able to use these same lines as leading lines into the photograph. Position your camera higher or lower than your normal standing height to see if a different perspective could increase the intensity of the interest in the line(s). Leading lines work for both horizontal and vertical images, so explore the scene and try a few ideas out.
The Magic Hour
There are several benefits to shooting during the magic hours of the day. Photos shot between 10 am and 2 pm (depending on the time of year) tend to have very few shadows, which could make the scene look two dimensional very quickly as well as presents a few other issues. When there is shadows at mid day they are usually very harsh and contrasty because of the brightness and position of the sun; mid-day shots will without a doubt trip up your camera’s metering system. Depending on your vision of the scene you would like to shoot, going back to the location at a different time of day may be in your best interest. Photographs taken at dawn or dusk are less likely to have harsh shadows because the light is softer and the position of the sun is different which could be better for the objects in your scene. The position of the sun will create longer shadows and add dimension to the shapes and patterns in your scene. Finally, the light produced by the sun during the “magic hours” is usually much warmer and welcoming to the eye.
Best Practice: Take your tripod and shutter release everywhere…yes I know its big, bulky, and you are a wiz at shooting handheld but over the years I have learned that the details of images that are shot on a tripod is far superior to handheld.
Don’t Forgo the Foreground
A lot of hobbyists and semi-professional photographers neglect the foreground in their landscape photos. They either choose to or forget about the smaller things that lead up to a large element in the scene such as a mountain or the vast expanse of the ocean. But with that level of focus on the large elements you are eliminating to other supporting elements of the scene and could very quickly make a flat boring photograph of a big rock or a lot of water. Another way to create a feeling of depth and distance or size and scale is to include something in the foreground. For example take this shot of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. Everyone has seen a sunset and almost everyone has seen a beach but how many people have ever noticed the ripples of sand that is normally the ocean floor at low tide? The ripples of sand fade into the distance allowing your eyes to move through the image up to the sun and lighthouse; there is depth to the photograph.
Small aperture means greater depth of field and more detail throughout the image, which is what you want for most landscape scenes. Having a greater depth of field will bring most if the foreground into focus while keeping the elements in the distance in focus as well. There is one catch to using a smaller aperture, you may need to use a tripod and a shutter release to shoot the landscapes. Because of the smaller opening in the lens less light will get through, to counteract that a longer shutter speed will need to be use thus making it harder the shoot the scene handheld. At the very least you will need a sturdy surface to put the camera on and I recommend if you do not have a shutter release, use your cameras self timer. The less you touch the camera during a long exposure the crisper the details will be in your image.
Best practices: It is also a good idea to keep your ISO setting under 200, this will help reduce the noise in the image.
Also: If your camera or lens has an image stabilizer, better known as vibration control, turn it off while the camera is on the tripod. Because the camera is secured on the tripod or on the sturdy surface the motor of the stabilizers will actually cause a shake in the camera.
Mother Nature Rules
Very few thing can compliment a landscape more than beautiful crisp skies dotted with a few clouds, but honestly, how many days out of the week do you get out to shoot with perfect skies. Mother nature will always present you with challenges to shooting when you are trying to capture landscapes. You will be faced with overcast, partly-cloudy, or even stormy days but that doesn’t mean that you can not use these events to create amazing photos. These are times that you may want to consider using a polarizing filter to help bring out the contrast and color in the flat overcast or cloudy sky to create more drama. You could even play with gradient ND filters to work with longer exposures during the day. If the skies are still troublesome, try framing the scene out with the elements around you such as nearby trees.
The Rule Of Thirds
I don’t know why it is called a rule, its more of a guide. The Rule of Thirds is all about positioning your elements in an orderly manner in the image. The rule of thirds is an imaginary grid that is laid out over your scene that divides the frame up into 9 equal sections. Most cameras now days actually have a setting that shows the divide lines in the viewfinder for you). The purpose is to help you align the strongest elements of the scene up to the most compelling position possible. However, if you repeatedly use the same axis, your photographs will become predictable. So take careful consideration on the placement of the elements in your photograph, such as, the horizon line. Placing the horizon directly in the center of the photograph could hinder your image. If you simply move the camera position up or down and align the horizon on the one of the dividing lines you will incorporate more foreground; which creates depth.
Best Practices: Find one thing of grandeur in the scene that draws all of our attention to it. This focal point is what you should be designing your photograph around and usually the element you position using the rule of thirds.
Landscape photography is one of the most common genres for beginners, hobbyist, and even semi pro photographers because of the availability of places to shoot, the slow changes of an area, and the lack of people in them. My love for landscape photography comes from a fervent desire of wanting to explore the world. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to travel. However, without having the proper skill level in photography, spending large quantities of money on trips to shoot while learning the basics would be a waste. So before you head out to a location hours away, learn you skill in your area. One of the most cost effective things I can recommend is shoot where you know. If you slow down you may be surprised at how many things you have overlooked through the years. With enough practice, you’ll soon find that those mundane images are giving way to the stunningly beautiful ones that you have been envisioning.