Scenic photos are a part of almost every photographer’s repertoire. After all, almost no one with a camera can resist snapping a photo of crashing surf, sweeping fields of wildflowers or a towering, snow-covered mountain.
Landscape photos seem like they should be easy, yet the final images are often disappointing. How many times have you taken a photo of a stunningly beautiful place only to discover that the image you end up with is nothing short of underwhelming? Let’s fix that!
The truth is, landscape photography is more difficult than it seems. The reason for this is actually quite simple– part of why we are drawn to beautiful scenery is because it exists in three dimensions. Mountains are awe-inspiring because of their great height. Canyons are awe-inspiring because of their great depth. And photography is a two-dimensional medium. The trick, then, is to make your landscape photos look as three dimensional as possible. Here are some tips for accomplishing that:
Even completely natural landscapes have lines. Focus on the line between sand and water as it leads your eye towards a rocky cliff in the distance, or follow a river through a ravine. Man-made structures that cut diagonally through your image – such as roads, fences and bridges – will also help draw your viewer’s eye into the scene. Vertical lines can add dimension, too – they can make a forest look towering and they can make a waterfall appear powerful and imposing.
Photos shot at mid day have very few shadows, and a scene without shadows looks two dimensional. The light at this time also creates its own set of problems – it is bright and often creates too much contrast, which can make your blacks too black and your highlights too bright. Conversely, photos shot at dawn or dusk are less likely to have this problem, and the light during those hours is not only softer but warmer. The longer shadows create extra dimension and can also provide interesting shapes and patterns for you to use in your compositions.
Instead, try taking the photo during the magic hour at sunset or sunrise.
A lot of hobbyists neglect the foreground in landscape photos, choosing instead to focus on just the mountain or just those waves as they reach the shore. But the focal point of your image isn’t the only important element. To create that feeling of depth and distance, you should also include something in the foreground. In that beach shot, it could be a cluster of rocks or a tidal pool. In the mountainscape, you could partially frame the snowy peak behind a stand of trees or a collection of boulders.
Or, set your camera to Landscape Mode (which does the same thing).
Small aperture means greater depth of field, which is what you want for most landscapes. A greater depth of field will bring the foreground into focus while keeping the elements in the distance in focus as well. Keep in mind that you may need to bring along a tripod and shutter release when shooting landscapes, since the greater depth of field may require a longer exposure. In general, you also want to be shooting landscapes with a smaller ISO in order to preserve detail and prevent noise – that may also make a tripod necessary.
A beautiful sky can really complete a landscape image, which is another reason to shoot during those magic hours (a mid-day sky may be completely washed out in your final image). Overcast, partly-cloudy or stormy days are also great for capturing interesting skies. It can be tricky to get the correct exposure when your sky is bright and your landscape is less-bright, though, so you may want to consider using a polarizing filter to help bring out the contrast and color in the sky and to make it appear more dramatic.
When composing your photo, be sure you consider the placement of the horizon. If the sky is dramatic and dominant, try having it occupy about two thirds of the image. For a less dramatic sky that you don’t want overwhelming the rest of your photo, position your camera so the sky occupies just one third of the image.
Which brings me to my next point: the rule of thirds. By now you know that beautifully composed photos often follow the rule of thirds. To use this trick, use two imaginary horizontal lines and two vertical ones to divide your scene up into nine equal parts. Now place your horizon on one of those horizontal lines, then move your camera so that your focal point sits at one of the intersections between the vertical and horizontal divisions of the scene. Following the rule of thirds is one of the quickest routes to improving the overall composition of your landscape photos.
Landscape photography doesn’t have to be completely devoid of all human influence. An old shipwreck on a beach or a crumbling stone wall in a pasture can add a level of interest to any landscape image – and can even become a focal point. Some of the best landscape images combine natural and man-made elements, so try shooting each scene with and without those features. Move your camera’s viewpoint to crop out the man-made elements in one image, for example. Include them in another; and use them as the dominant component in a third. Then see which one of those images makes the most interesting composition.
Make that your focal point. Landscape images sometimes look dull and flat not because of what you did with them on a technical level but because of what you chose to focus on. A single red tree in autumn, when surrounded by green or yellow trees, will make a much more striking composition than a forest of uniformly colored trees. One horse standing on a vast open grassland can give your viewer a sense of loneliness and infinite space that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you didn’t include that lone animal. If there is nothing in your landscape that stands out, it may be difficult to create an image that goes beyond the ordinary, so spend some time walking, changing your viewpoint and playing with perspective until you find something worthy of being a focal point.
Landscape photography is one of the best genres for beginners and for hobbyists who just want to improve their technical skills. Landscapes don’t change rapidly the way human-dominated scenes often do, so it’s easy to go out in the morning or evening and spend some time experimenting and trying new techniques and viewpoints. Do a little research first, and find out what parts of your area offer the best scenery. Plan not just one but multiple trips to that location at various time of the day and in different weather situations. With plenty of experimentation and practice you’ll soon find that those underwhelming images are giving way to the stunningly beautiful ones you always meant to bring home.