Have you ever gone out to a gorgeous landscape, perhaps a vast open field or an imposing mountain range, taken pictures you thought were going to be the best you’ve ever seen, and then found out later on that your photos look nothing like the landscape did when you were there? If this sounds like a familiar story, you aren’t alone. In fact, most of us make the same mistake over and over again when we get into landscape photography. I know I did.
If your landscape photos look a little flat and dull, it is most likely because you haven’t created a sense of scale or depth. A field of grass appears to have depth when you’re standing in it because you can see the individual leaves of grass at your feet. You can see the leaves getting smaller as they get further off in the distance.
Turn foreground elements into scale cues
But it’s a little different with a camera. The camera can’t see your perspective unless you get up real close to the grass near your feet. There are a lot of ways to do this. One tried and true method is to find something interesting, say a bush or a rock outcropping, and use it as a scale cue. Get really close to the object you will be using, and frame your shot around it. I used the footprints in the following photo as a scale cue. You can’t see it, but I actually had to lie flat on my belly with the camera just a few inches from the footprint in front in order to take this picture. I also used a wideangle lens at 18mm to bring in the surrounding houses and hills.
It’s important to not be afraid of getting a little sand on your belly when taking landscape photos. Your scale cues will usually be below your waist, and the lower you can go to get them in the foreground of your photo, the better. Try to use anything and everything you can think of. If you don’t have a bush or a footprint nearby, think about moving around the landscape until you can find something that works.
Here is another example (also from the Oregon coast) to whet your appetite:
You will notice that I didn’t use much of a foreground element, just a few bushes on the bottom of the photo. Sometimes a little is all you need. I liked the way the leaves on these bushes framed the scene, so I kept them in the foreground. This photo gives you the feeling that you are peering out from the forest into a lush landscape. Considering the fact that we actually were in the forest, this photo does a good job of making the scene look like it felt in real life.
There are other ways to convey a sense of scale and depth besides foreground elements, but before I discuss them, I need to tell you some things about aperture and depth of field for landscape photos.
Always increase the depth of field
As a general rule, you will want to have a much bigger depth of field when you take landscape photos. By depth of field, I am talking about the portion of the photo that is in focus. You will notice above that most of the photo is in focus, except for some elements in the foreground. When more of the photo is in focus, it helps to create a sense of the landscape’s vastness. You want your viewer to be able to see as far as the eye can actually see without being limited by the portion of the photo that is in focus. By increasing the depth of field, you are making your viewers feel as if they are actually there.
You may have guessed it already, but your camera’s aperture is the key to creating a greater depth of field. The more your close your aperture, the bigger the depth of field in your photo will be. A bigger f-number corresponds to a more closed aperture while a smaller f-number corresponds to a more open aperture. When taking landscape photos, try to keep your aperture between f11 and f22.
But your work isn’t done quite yet. Whenever you increase your aperture, you have to decrease your shutter speed so your camera can take in more light. Think of it this way, a higher aperture number corresponds to a smaller hole for the light to go through. Because the hole is smaller, you need more time for the same amount of light to make it to the sensor and create an image. Fortunately, if you use Aperture Priority mode, your camera will choose the appropriate shutter speed for the aperture you choose.
Other scale cues
I mentioned that there are other ways to convey a sense of scale in your photos, and they don’t involve using elements in the foreground. You can also use buildings in the distance, rows of crops, people, or anything else that most people can easily gauge the size of. Have a look at the photo below. In this one, I used a winding fence to draw the eye through the photo and establish linear perspective. You get a real sense of the landscape’s scale because you can see the fence getting smaller and smaller further away.
So to recap, always be looking for scale cues whenever you take a landscape picture. Whether the cue comes as a foreground element, a person, or a long and winding road, it helps to put everything else into perspective. And don’t forget about using a more closed aperture to get a greater depth of field. It will make the experience of your photos much closer to the real thing.
Have any other questions about how to take fantastic landscape photos? Send them to me and I'll do what I can to answer them!
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