Just about everyone has had the experience of shooting a landscape photograph that didn’t quite turn out the way you’d hoped. For some reason, that beautiful, big, sweeping landscape just doesn’t look the same in the photo as it did in real life. It looks flat and dull, a poor facsimile of that gorgeous scene you really wanted to capture on camera. So what are you doing wrong? Here’s a short list of common pitfalls to help you debug your landscapes.
[ Top image Untitled by Flickr user Juan Pablo.]
It’s easy to feel like landscape images should just take themselves. In person, a landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, so it seems as if you should just be able to lift the camera, take the picture, done. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The inherent problem that we photographers face with pretty much any photograph is that photography is by its nature a two dimensional medium. So the challenge will always be how to capture that beautiful three dimensional landscape on a two dimensional piece of paper, and still have it look like it exists in three dimensions.
And there are other pitfalls, too. Maybe the light isn’t right, or your camera settings aren’t ideal. Unfortunately there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and if you don’t have a good understanding of what they are, you could be doomed to endlessly take landscape photos that just aren’t quite good enough.
So what exactly did go wrong with all of your supposed-to-be-gorgeous landscape images? You’ll probably be pleased to hear that most landscape photography mistakes are common and easily corrected. If you go down this list I think you’ll be able to easily identify which one of these problems your landscape photographs commonly suffer from.
1. You failed to think in layers
Because photographs are two dimensional, we need to give our viewers visual cues that will help them interpret an image as existing in three dimensions. There are lots of ways that our eyes and brains will do this in real life. The first is called “previous familiarity,” which basically just means that we use our past understanding of object size to make a judgment about how far away things are from each other. For example, we know approximately how large the average adult human being is. We also know how big a barn is, and we know how big a flower is. If we shoot a photograph that has a flower in the foreground, a human in the mid-ground and a barn in the background, our viewers are going to immediately know approximately how big the scene is based on how large each one of those objects looks in relationship to the other two objects. What this means for your landscape photos is that you can place objects in the near foreground and in the background to help create the illusion that the scene exists in three dimensions. Stunning landscapes will more often than not have something significant in the foreground, so think in terms of layers whenever you are shooting landscapes. Add a foreground element to make your photo seem as big and sweeping as that scene did in real life.
The Blue Cold Haze Drowned the Beautiful Hawkes Bay Valley, but Not Before the Last Ray of Sun Got There First by Flickr user Peter Kurdulija
There are other ways to make a landscape look three dimensional, too. If there are any converging lines in the scene (such as a road or a set of railroad tracks), include them—those converging lines can help fool the eye into believing that a scene has physical depth. Also try overlapping elements—that’s another way to get your viewer’s brain to understand that he’s looking at near and distant objects.
2. You shot the image in the middle of the day
Now, if you’re traveling you often don’t have a lot of choice about what time you get to that stunning scenic location—which means you may have no choice but to capture the photograph in less than ideal lighting conditions. I get that, and I’m not going to tell you that you should only ever shoot in the morning or the evening because that wouldn’t really be practical for most people. What I will say, though, is that if you have the choice you should always aim to be in that scenic place as the sun rises, or just as it’s setting. That’s because during that hour just after sunrise and just before sunset, the sun is lower in the sky and it has a lot more atmosphere to travel through, which means that the light is softer and the shadows are gentler. Instead of those hard, black shadows you get at other times of the day, you’ll get clarity in the shadows, color in the sky and you won’t loose any important details to those burned out highlights that are so common at mid day.
So what if you do happen to arrive at your destination at high noon? You can still get a good image, but it will require a little more effort. First, you will need a tripod and a camera that can shoot in Raw format. In Raw, your camera will capture significantly more levels of brightness than it is capable of in JPEG, so that alone might be enough to turn a mid-day scene into something beautiful. But I also recommend capturing a series of images at different exposures, with your camera mounted on a tripod so that each image is lined up in exactly the same way. Take one shot using the settings your meter thinks you should be using, then take another one that’s a half stop underexposed, and a third shot that’s a half stop overexposed (you can take another pair a full stop over and underexposed, too, to ensure that you’ll get good results). Combine these images later on in post processing, and you’ll have a final photograph that includes nice detail in the shadows, the highlights, and all the other tones in between.
3. You chose the wrong aperture
Beginning photographers often shoot landscapes with mid-range apertures, even if they already know they’re supposed to go small. That’s because small apertures, combined with low ISOs (another must when shooting landscapes) may force your shutter speed to go too slow for a hand-held shot. When this happens, beginners tend to use a larger aperture (smaller f-number) to compensate, when what they really ought to be doing is moving their camera to a tripod. Landscapes need good depth of field from foreground to background, especially if you’re following rule number one and placing elements in the foreground. Without an aperture in the f/22 range, you may find that that foreground element turns out blurry, and that’s not ideal for any landscape. If you can’t hand-hold your camera at f/22, use a tripod. Make sure you have a remote release or an old-fashioned cable release so you don’t add shake to the image when you touch the shutter button. If you don’t have a remote/cable release, you can also use your camera’s self-timer feature.
Dusk at the Zion Canyon by Flickr user Joe Y Jiang
4. You forgot the rule of thirds
A great pirate once said that rules are really just guidelines, so you may have fallen into the trap of thinking that his advice almost certainly applies to those so-beautiful-they-take-themselves landscape scenes. But just because a scene looks gorgeous to your eyes when you’re standing there in person doesn’t mean that you can safely ignore things like the rule of thirds. Most of the time, the rule of thirds is the best way to compose any scene that includes the horizon. Place the horizon either on the top 1/3rd horizontal line (some cameras actually let you turn on a rule of thirds grid in the viewfinder) or on the bottom one—which of the two you choose depends on the scene itself. If you’re shooting a landscape with a beautiful stormy sky at sunset, you may want to put the horizon on the bottom horizontal, since the sky is likely to be the most beautiful part of the scene. If, however, you’ve got a basic blue sky with a couple of puffy clouds in it, you’ll want to put the horizon on the top horizontal instead. As a general rule, give two thirds of the frame to the most beautiful part of the scene. If you didn’t get this right in-camera, don’t worry—you can crop after the fact in post processing. But remember that the need to crop is another argument for shooting in Raw, because when you crop you lose resolution. Raw format utilizes all the megapixels your camera has to offer, so resolution loss will have less impact.
Natural Beauty by Flickr user Chris Gin
These are by far the four most common mistakes that photographers make when shooting landscapes, so try to commit them to memory and just run through them in your head whenever you’re out shooting scenic places. I can almost guarantee you that if you do think these four things through in advance, your landscape photos will almost instantly begin to improve.
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