To the snap-shooter, nothing could be simpler than a landscape. Just find some pretty scenery, lift your camera and press the button. Viola! Landscape.
Now if you're not a mere snap-shooter, you know the absolute folly of what I just said. While it's true that it's easy to shoot a landscape, it is also extremely difficult to capture one. What I mean of course is that anyone can lift a camera and press the button, and because landscapes don't move it seems as if capturing one should be as easy as that. But you and I both know that recreating a beautiful, three-dimensional scene in a two dimensional medium is much more difficult than just hitting that shutter button. Let's see how to do it...
Back Again by Flickr user Christolakis
Landscapes are beautiful, in part, because of their scale. So how do you take something as vast as the Rocky Mountains or the arches of Utah and do it justice on a flat piece of 8x10 paper? To answer this question, we have to know a little bit about how the human brain - and the human eye - work together to make us perceive three dimensions.
The human brain interprets depth and distance in two ways: the first is called "Stereopsis", which has to do with the convergence of images on the retina of each eye. Basically, this just means that because human eyes are roughly 2.36 inches apart, the image that one eye sees is not exactly the same as what the other one sees. When the brain compares the position of each image on the retina, it can use that information to judge distance.
Fortunately for photographers, stereopsis isn't the only way that the human brain perceives scenery in three dimensions. We also use monocular cues such as previous familiarity, which means that we use our experiences to judge distance. For example, if there is a person in the foreground of an image and a house in the background, we can make a decision about how far apart the two objects are because we know roughly how big a person is and roughly how big a house is. Other monocular cues include converging lines and color saturation (near colors look brighter while distant colors look paler), and interposition (when one object is partially obscured by another object, our brain knows that the partially-obscured object is at a greater distance than the object obscuring it).
By using monocular cues in your landscape photography, you can trick your viewer's brain into thinking he is looking at a sweeping, 3-dimensional scene when it is really just a photograph on a flat piece of paper. Here's how to do that, and of course a few additional tips for good measure.
'Peeking Through', Argentina, El Chalten, Mt. Fitzroy by Flickr user WanderingtheWorld (www.LostManProject.com)
How to give your landscape depth and dimension
1. Include something in the foreground
This is that "previous familiarity" concept we talked about earlier. Though your viewer might not know the exact size of that pile of rocks in the foreground, her brain is going to automatically make a guess as to the size of those rocks, and that will lead to assumptions about the scale and depth of the scene. Including something in the foreground is one of the most important things you can do to improve your landscape photos. Without that foreground element, everything in the scene will look like exactly what it is - a two-dimensional image.
Untitled by Flickr user SamRosenbaum
2. Include something in the background
In landscape photography, background is just as important as foreground. Is there a beautiful mountain range in the distance? How about that dark blue division on the horizon that marks the place where the ocean begins? Maybe there is a city out there somewhere, or a road winding off into the distance. That distant element will give your viewer's eye a place to stop, and the more distant that point seems, the more vast the image will seem.
3. Include overlapping objects
That big rock in front of the crashing surf, and the crashing surf in front of that pier in the distance are overlapping elements. The position of these elements is going to help give your landscape (or in this case, seascape) a lot of additional depth. Compare a scene like this one to that oft-taken head-on shot of the surf crashing into the beach, and you'll see what I mean. Depth comes from perspective, and a head-on shot of the waves gives you very little of that perspective.
4. Include converging lines
This is a good compositional rule no matter what you're shooting. Converging lines can improve any photograph, from a portrait to a landscape. But if you're trying to add a three-dimensional feel to your image, converging lines will do wonders for you. A road, for example, vanishing into the horizon will add a great sense of depth and distance to an otherwise flat scene.
[Converging lines are so important, I've set aside a whole video to discuss it in my Digital Photo Secrets video course]
And a few more tips to make your landscapes shine
1. Change angle and position often
Don't make the mistake of shooting your scene from just one carefully chosen, "perfect" angle. Because chances are it isn't really the most perfect angle in your location. After you've shot the scene from that first position, turn your head and look at the scene from another perspective, then another. This is of course particularly important if you traveled a long way to that particular location. If it will be a long time before you return, why squander the opportunity on a single perspective? Digital frames are free - shoot as many as you can before moving on to the next location.
A Perfect Morning at Glacier National Park by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
2. Pay attention to other things besides the view
The view is why you are there with your camera. In fact, it can be so all-encompassing that you don't even notice that the National Parks service has kindly put a waste collection bin right there in the corner of the frame. Before you shoot that once-in-a-lifetime shot, make sure any undesirable stuff is angled out or physically removed from the frame. This includes trash, of course, but may also include natural debris such as sticks and twigs. People and cars can also ruin a good landscape, and so will the vapor trails of a passing airplane. Are you at a popular touristy area? You can use some photoshop manipulation to remove the tourists.
Machu Pichu sans tourists. With this trick, it'll look like you were the only the one there.IMG_8080 by Flickr user j0055
See how to use photoshop manipulation to remove the tourists.
Pay attention to roads, footpaths and the sky and wait for those who travel there to continue on before you press that shutter button. And don't forget to look out for telephone wires - you're probably so used to seeing them in person that they are almost invisible - until you get home and find them cutting through an otherwise beautiful sky.
Large Format Study N. 61 by Flickr user rachel_thecat
3. Depth, depth, depth
There is hardly ever a good reason for shooting a landscape with a shallow depth of field. In most cases, you want that foreground to be as sharp as your background. This means shooting with a small aperture - at least F16. Which may also mean a slow shutter speed, which of course means a sturdy tripod and remote release. And here's a tip within a tip: use the mirror lock-up function on your DSLR, if you have one. The motion of that mirror can cause camera shake during a long exposure, so it's best to keep it still when you're shooting landscapes, since even slight movement can ruin a shot.
4. Width, width, width
Wide angles are not always necessary but they can add a lot of scale to your image. If landscape photography is something you're serious about, you need to invest in a high-quality wide-angle zoom lens in the 14mm to 24mm range.
5. Get some filters
You can use a neutral density filter to take stunning landscape images. On a windy day, a neutral density filter will allow you to take a long exposure that captures the moving clouds as beautiful, surreal streaks in the sky. Water will become misty and ethereal-looking. Another filter that can help improve your landscape images is a circular polarizer. Use a polarizing filter to help remove unwanted reflections from water and to darken the sky on a bright day.
6. Shoot in RAW
JPEG files are compressed, which means they contain less information than a RAW file does. You want to capture as much dynamic range as you can in a landscape image, so you need your camera to create files that contain as much information as possible, so that you can change the exposure or tweak the colors and tones in post processing if you feel it's necessary.
7. Use the smallest ISO your camera offers
You'll already be using a tripod, so there's no reason to shoot at higher ISOs. While it's true that today's digital cameras will take high ISO shots with very little visible noise, it's always best to shoot landscapes at low ISOs since you don't even want a minimal amount of noise spoiling the clarity of your image. Lower ISOs also help to create vibrant colors in your image.
Creeping Mist by Flickr user LukeAndrew94
8. Get in touch with your inner Earth
If you want to photograph a child, you need to think like a child. If you want to photograph the Earth, you need to think like the Earth. What will your landscape look like at sunrise or at sunset? What will it look like just before or just after a storm? How about in the winter, when all the leaves are gone and there's snow covering the grass? How about in the spring, when there are wildflowers and new growth everywhere? Pay careful attention to the weather and shoot during the golden hours whenever you can.
It also helps to explore the area a little before you set up your tripod. For goodness sake, don't do it at the scenic overlook. I know, I know, it's so scenic. But that image is going to look exactly like every other image taken from that spot. If there's a trail at the scenic overlook, take it. Explore the area and think about all the different angles and positions that might make a great photo. Then set up your tripod.
9. Know where you're going
While it is of course true that you can just blunder into a stunning landscape, you're going to have success much more often if you have a good map and some advice from someone who knows the area. Plan where you are going to go and what you're going to photograph in advance. You'll be sure to get some nice images of the places on your list and who knows? You might also blunder into something en route from point A to point B.
10. Trust your camera's meter, but not completely
You should always bracket your exposures. This helps to avoid common problems such as a too bright sky or too dark shadows. Those multiple shots may even save you when a little gust of wind comes along and adds some motion blur to an otherwise perfect image. But the biggest benefit bracketing has is that it will give you multiple exposures to choose from - or to combine, if you're happier with the sky in one shot and with the foreground in another. Combining the two images in post-processing will give you the best of both worlds.
Little Su by Flickr user code poet
Think about your shot and how it might look once you've taken it. If you're shooting in black and white, try to see it in black and white. If you're using that neutral density filter, think about where you're going to see motion blur and what it might look like. Maybe even fire off a few sample shots, without worrying too much about your camera's settings. Check the images and see what works and what doesn't, then go from there.
12. Don't forget those other rules of composition
We already talked about foregrounds, backgrounds and leading lines. Don't forget about those other rules, too, such as the rule of thirds. It's easy to think you can ignore rules of composition when photographing landscapes, because the scenery ought to speak for itself. In reality, the rules of composition are even more important here, because the scenery loses that one element on paper that it has in real life - its third dimension. Balance and composition are more important in landscapes because they will help draw your viewer's eye into an image and make it comfortable once it's there.
Landscapes are challenging, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You won't always get great photos. Sometimes you won't get any useable photos at all. Just remember during those frustrating days the words of Ansel Adams: "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." And keep on shooting, because eventually those 12 images will show up in your portfolio, too.
[Also see my article on 26 outstanding landscapes for further inspiration]
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