A Field Guide to Great Landscapes :: Digital Photo Secrets

A Field Guide to Great Landscapes

by Becki Robins 4 comments

Anyone who is not a photographer will probably tell you it's easy to shoot a landscape. Step one: find beautiful scenery. Step two: point your camera at it. Step three: take a picture.

Of course, that's an over simplification. But not too much! With just a few extra steps, you'll be taking superb landscape photos wherever you are.


[ Top image Exploring South America by Flickr user Stuck in Customs]

Landscape photography is a whole lot more than just hiking to a beautiful spot with your camera bag slung over your shoulder. The reason landscape photography looks so simple is because an excellent landscape photographer makes it look simple. An excellent landscape photographer knows how to take a breathtaking, three-dimensional scene and make it look just as breathtaking on a two dimensional screen or piece of paper. Think for just a moment about what an incredible feat that is.

Becoming a great landscape photographer requires an appreciation and intimate understanding of light and dimension. Without those two elements, your landscapes are going to look like every other tourist's landscapes--flat and boring.

What you're doing wrong

  • Canon PowerShot S90
  • 80
  • f/6.3
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 6.9 mm

Blue Ridge by Flickr user NCinDC

Have you ever pulled into one of those scenic overlooks with a million other tourists, lined up along the safety railing and snapped what you were sure would be an amazing photo, only to return home and discover that it's the most boring photo in the world? What happened? How could such gorgeous scenery fail to produce an equally gorgeous image?

Well, the answer really isn't very simple. There are a number of forces working against you, and the first is that your camera just isn't capable of capturing three dimensions in the same way as your eye and the rest of your senses do. Remember that when you are standing there on that scenic overlook you aren't just seeing the scene with your eyes, you are also feeling it. There may be a breeze blowing in from the canyon. There are birds singing and the wind is moving the branches of nearby trees. There's a huge sky overhead. You can smell the pine trees. The vastness and beauty of the scene is something that you experience with your whole body. And you simply can't recreate that on a flat piece of paper.

That scene that your senses interpret as astoundingly beautiful your camera simply interprets as a range of tones. It's up to you to include elements in your composition that suggest the three dimensions that you experience in that setting. You can't recreate the sound and the smells but you can capture the elements within the scene that give you a visual sense of dimension.

Besides that basic problem, there are other elements that make for poor landscapes, and it pays to commit them to memory.

1. There's too much light.

It may be that you arrived at that scenic overlook at high noon, which means there's too much light on your scene, and it's all coming from the wrong direction. Direct, overhead light creates short shadows, and short shadows make everything look flat and dimensionless. That bright noontime sun also creates way too much dynamic range, which means that there are simply too many tones between white and black and your camera can't capture them all. A classic symptom of this is skies that are blown out, lacking detail and color. To compensate for this, photographers sometimes expose for the sky, but that means that detail in the shadows are lost, which results in a too-dark images with a lot of ultra-blacks. Mid-day is simply a poor time for landscapes.

This photo was taken in the late morning--too late to take advantage of that beautiful magic hour light. The result is an image with a blown-out sky and poor contrast.

2. There's nothing in the foreground.

One big mistake you might have made at that scenic overlook is that you stood right in the middle and shot out into the scene. You captured the view from the edge of the cliff to that mountain range in the distance, but you put nothing in the foreground.

Foreground elements can make or break a landscape. Why? Because human beings use a lot of different cues to judge distance and depth. One thing we do subconsciously is compare the size of familiar objects and then use the information gleaned from the comparison to judge distance. For example, if there's a fence in the foreground and a cow in the background, we can figure out roughly how far away that cow is by comparing the visual size of the cow to the visual size of the fence. Now for a photograph, you really don't care if the viewer knows how far away the cow is, what you want is for the viewer to know that the cow is a part of a three dimensional scene. To do that, you put the fence in the foreground.

There's no doubt that this is beautiful scenery, but this image lacks something. Without a foreground element we might as well be viewing a photograph of a model. When looking at this image, the viewer gets no real sense of distance and dimension despite the fact that there is clearly great distance between the camera and the subject.

3. You put the horizon smack in the middle of the frame. Or you tilted it.

I'm sure you know about the rule of thirds. Every photographer should know something about it. But for some reason, people who shoot landscapes like to put that horizon right in the middle of the frame. Now of course there are exceptions to the rule of thirds, such as when you are shooting symmetrical scenes (an example of this is a mountain reflected in a lake), but in general you need to make a judgment call about whether or not your scenery is more important than your sky. If you want to capture a dramatic sky, create a scene that is 2/3rds sky and 1/3rd land. If the mountains, trees and grass are more important, create a scene that is 2/3rds land and 1/3rd sky. Also take care to keep that horizon level. Nothing puts off a viewer like a tilted horizon. It looks unnatural. It makes us want to look at something else.


The first photo has a lot of things wrong with it, but the biggest sin is that the horizon is right in the middle of the frame, and also seems to be slightly tilted. In the second image, there is less sky and more lake, which is what you generally want when shooting on a clear day. There isn't a sense of the horizon being askew, either. The second image contains other elements that improve this photo, too, including a large tree in the foreground and a rocky landscape that acts almost as a frame.

4. Shallow depth of field

In most cases, landscapes require depth of field. You want your landscape images to be tack sharp from foreground to background. If you used shutter priority or simply didn't fuss with your aperture because your meter didn't say you had to, you might have captured an image with a blurry foreground or a fuzzy background. Think of it like this, when you're standing in a huge, beautiful setting, you really can't look at everything at once. Instead, you look from that stand of trees to that mountain lake to the snowcapped peak looming over it. Each time your gaze shifts, your eyes refocus on whatever you're looking at. So in that sense, everything in your scene is in sharp focus. With a photograph, you see the landscape differently because it's compressed into a small space. But you still expect every element in that scene to be in focus. You don't want to stop to admire a beautiful moss colored boulder only to discover that the moss just looks like a green blob and the boulder like a gray one.

This image was shot using a very wide aperture--which was completely unnecessary for the time of day the photo was taken. When viewed at 100%, you can see that the tree in the foreground is blurry, as are the hills in the background. The only part of the image that is in focus is the bank in the right center of the frame, which is where the focal point was.

5. Poor composition.

Even though landscapes are beautiful all by themselves, you cannot count on nature to compose an image for you. Nature does a great job making something beautiful to all of your senses but a lousy job making something beautiful to your camera. You must understand compositional tricks and techniques before you can master landscape photography.

The California Redwoods are beautiful, but this shot doesn't do them justice. Why? It just isn't composed very well. The elements in the frame are all over the place, and there hasn't been any thought given to what the subject is. Without a clear subject, you get a photo that just looks dull.

Getting the most out of that small aperture

You know, of course, that small apertures require slow shutter speeds, so a tripod is essential for capturing compelling landscapes. You may be tempted to turn up your ISO, but don't. Larger ISOs create images with more noise, and more noise will almost never result in a better landscape. You want your landscape images to be crystal clear, and that means that you need small ISO as well as small aperture.

It may surprise you, however, to hear that the smallest aperture your lens is capable of may not necessarily give you the sharpest image. This is because of a phenomenon called "diffraction."

Diffraction is what happens to light as it passes through those blades that your camera's diaphragm is made from. You know the ones I mean:

As the light passes over those blades it bends and scatters, which means those light rays start to interfere with each other. This results in a softening of the final image, and that effect increases as the aperture decreases. That's because at larger apertures the percentage of diffracted light that reaches your camera's sensor is less than it is at those smaller apertures. So contrary to popular belief, that super-small aperture your lens is capable of may not in fact be the best one for capturing that super-sharp landscape image.

You can mediate most of the effects of diffraction by simply using an aperture that's a stop or two larger than your lens's smallest aperture. But if landscape photography is a serious endeavor for you, you may also want to consider spending some experimentation time with your lens to find out what the best aperture is for the kind of photography you typically do.

To do this, take a series of shots of the same scene and compare them in post processing. Start with the smallest aperture your lens is capable of, then continue at increasingly larger apertures until you get to f/8 or so. Most of the time, you're not going to be using f/8 to take a landscape image, but it may be useful as a comparison to use a reasonably wide aperture when testing your lens for diffraction.

Take note of what your focus point was when you took these shots, then open up each image in your post processing software and view at 100%. Compare the sharpness of the focus point in each image to determine which aperture is the sharpest for that lens.

Using a tripod, I took a shot of this road at each f/stop my lens is capable of, using the green bushes in the left center as my focal point. To see the diffraction effect, you need to view the following detail shots at full resolution:

f/32: Look carefully at the branches between the first green bush and the second. In this image, they are noticeably soft.

f/22: Not much improvement in this shot, either.

f/11: At this aperture, we finally see a sharpening of those branches and the foliage surrounding them.

f/8: There isn't a whole lot of difference between f/11 and f/8, so I would say that this particular lens performs best at f/11.

If you find that you aren't satisfied with the depth of field you get at your lens's optimum aperture, you can compensate for this by using a technique called "focus stacking." This simply means that you mount your camera on a tripod and take a series of images, each one using a different focal point. For example, you might focus on the foreground in the first shot, then slightly behind the foreground in the second, the middle ground in the third, and so on until you reach the horizon. Now you can combine these images in post processing, which will result in a final image that is sharp from foreground to background.

Now that you know the pitfalls, work on fixing them

Landscape photography is thoughtful. If you pull into that scenic overlook, snap a picture and then drive away 30 seconds later you haven't given that shot nearly enough thought. Sure, you might luck out occasionally and create a lovely image without really planning on it. But most of the time that lack of thought is really going to show in your final image.

So every landscape photograph should be the result of a thought process. And when you walk onto that scene, your first thought should be this: How is the light in this scene going to look in the final image?

Working with the light

If you have a choice, always try to be at your destination either in the early morning or the late afternoon. That's the magic hour, as I'm sure you already know, and that's the time of day where the light is best for landscapes. The shadows are longer but they are also softer, which creates dimension and texture without sucking all the detail out of those darker parts of your scene. The light is softer, too, and it has a warm cast, which brings out the colors in the scene.

Of course, if you're the sort of guy who likes to hike and packs a camera along with him wherever he goes, you may not have a whole lot of control over the time of day you arrive at that beautiful destination. If you find yourself standing at the top of a mountain at high noon and you think you'd like to take a photo, you're stuck with the light. Now might be a good time to learn about HDR, which can be an excellent way to make use of that dynamic range.

To create an HDR photo, you need to have a tripod with you. Set your camera up on the tripod and shoot a minimum of three different images--one at the meter reading your camera provides, one that is a stop under that and one that is a stop over. When you return home, you can combine these images in post processing into a single photo that has beautiful highlights, shadows, and everything in between.

  • Nikon D80
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 20 mm

la nebbia di settembre by Flickr user francesco sgroi

Tricks for adding dimension

Find something to put in the foreground. In fact, try taking multiple shots with different foregrounds. Use that tree in one shot, and that boulder in another. Get down low and shoot from the perspective of those flowers. Try including your hiking buddy in another shot. Experiment with shooting that foreground element from different angles. Some of them are going to look great, others will look ho-hum. But trying everything you think of will give you a good feeling for what works and what doesn't.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
  • 100
  • f/9.0
  • 0.125 sec (1/8)
  • 18 mm

Dynamic Serenity by Flickr user papalars

Besides foregrounds, there are a number of other tricks you can employ to recreate that feeling of dimension. Backgrounds and distant objects can also create dimension, especially when combined with foreground objects. A distant sailboat at the edge of a seascape, for example, gives us a sense of the enormity of the ocean. Overlapping objects will tell your viewer that the first object is closer than the one it is partially obscuring. Converging lines such as those you find on railroad tracks or on fence rails will also give your viewer a sense of vast distances. So can color--the human eye understands that color becomes less saturated as it becomes more distant. That's why distant mountain ranges appear to be a sort of pale purple or blue color, while closer mountains have truer colors.

Make absolutely sure you have something to suggest dimension in your scene before you move on to your next thought: composition.

  • Nikon D300
  • 400
  • f/10.0
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 70 mm

Sunset road by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar

Composition

Think carefully about the rule of thirds. Is it appropriate in this situation? Is there a lot of symmetry in the scene? A lone tree on the horizon? If you think this might be a good time to break the rule of thirds, then by all means break it. If you don't have a compelling reason, though, turn on that rule of thirds grid in your viewfinder and try to line up the important element(s) in your scene on those rule of thirds intersections. Put the horizon either at 1/3 or 2/3, depending on how important the sky is. Put the primary foreground element at another intersection. Keep moving your feet and recomposing/reshooting until you feel like you've covered the scene and can move on.

Composition is more than just the rule of thirds, of course. You need to have a really good understanding of compositional tricks because they apply to landscapes as much as they do to any other photograph. Besides those tricks I mentioned above that can be used to create depth, you can also use color, texture or pattern to add interest to your image. Just look for elements in your scene that add visual interest and incorporate them into the shot, but do it with discretion. Remember that there's a fine line between composition and over-composition. A busy image is an unsuccessful one, regardless of how cool each individual element may be.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • 100
  • f/11.0
  • 0.01 sec (1/100)
  • 16 mm

Devil's Golf Course by Flickr user merlune

Conclusion

Taking awesome landscape images is really just a matter of learning to see in two dimensions. That sounds a bit backwards, I'm sure, but if you can accurately predict what your photograph will look like in two dimensions, you can take steps towards creating the depth and dimension you need in order to give your viewer the illusion of three dimensions. That's a powerful skill, and like everything else it comes with practice. Master it, and you'll be like a magician--capable of incredible visual feats.

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Comments

  1. Wylde says:

    very insightful, refreshing and useful information, Beck. Learning a lot more from your experience and I'm going to bounce back to my photography with confidence. I know this is helping both amateurs and professionals. Thank you for sharing your talent.

  2. Gunther says:

    Great contribution, Becki. I learned quite a lot. Will follow your advice precisely. HDR seems very interesting (if not overdone).
    Thank you very much, Gunther.

  3. John says:

    A lot of concisely stated, thoroughly useful information in this post, Becki. Truly relevant, easily understood explanations regarding composition and ways to improve one's landscape photography skills. Thanks very much for sharing your advice and expertise!

  4. Chris says:

    Wow. Just in time before my Alaskan cruise.. Your tips are so helpful to a retired wanna be photographer that can't afford all the classes or books . Thank you so much for sharing your talent.

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
27 minutes
About Becki Robins
Becki Robins is a Californian who has a strong background in photography including an associate in arts degree in commercial photography. She has been a hobby and professional photographer for more than a decade and has taken thousands of photos, some of which have been published and won awards. Becki is also an excellent coach of the Photography Dashes.