Landscape photography has long been one of my favorite types of photography. When I was a teenager, one of the earliest photographs that I remember taking as I explored photography was of Gooseberry Falls in Minnesota’s Gooseberry Falls State Park. Early impressions can definitely affect a lifetime of work.
Minnesota’s landscape was challenging for a budding nature and landscape photographer. Minnesota has no towering mountains, no roaring rivers, no geysers, no skyscraping redwoods, no dramatic deserts. Yet, I think that this gave me an education in working with the landscape that forced me to find good pictures, not simply make snapshots of spectacular locations.
Sure, a bold, dramatic landscape is nice, but sometimes that great subject can be a distraction to getting your best photography. All of us have been distracted by beautiful scenes that so overwhelm us that we forget that we cannot cram that beautiful scene into our camera. Here are some tips that will help you stay focused on your photography so that you can shoot any landscape better:
1. Focus on the photograph, not just the subject
We can only create a photograph that represents or interprets the subject since a landscape will not “fit” into our camera. Look at the subject, yes, but go beyond that and really look at what it looks like as a photograph. A good way to do that is to look at your image in your LCD after you have taken the shot. Is this just a record of the scene or is this a photograph that you would be proud to put on your wall?
Look beyond aiming your camera at a great subject. Examine the entire image to be sure it works as a photograph.
2. See the light
Photography is about light, so this might seem obvious. Here’s the deal – we see subjects; the camera sees light and shadow. And the camera overemphasizes the light and shadow. This is one reason many landscape photos fail – the photographer saw the subject but not the light on the subject in the way that the camera did. The LCD can help.
Look for and be sure you see what the light is doing to your scene. Look at both highlights and shadows.
3. Favor early and late light
I know, you are out in that great landscape in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, few landscapes look their best then. They need a low light that creates texture and form, a low light that adds warmth to the scene. That light only occurs early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
The best light for landscape photography usually comes early and late in the day.
4. Ban auto white balance
Auto white balance will ensure that you never get the best colors for your landscape. It is a compromised way of dealing with the light. It is inconsistent, but worse, often adds a blue cast to outdoor photos. This blue cast desaturates colors and makes the scene look less inviting, yet it looks “okay” so photographers accept it. Set a specific white balance such as Daylight for sun, Cloudy for clouds.
Auto white balance will destroy the subtle colors of a scene like this.
5. Watch your foreground and background
One excellent way to improve your compositions is to consciously pay more attention to the foregrounds and backgrounds of your images. Look at what is happening up close in that foreground. Can you change your position to make it more dramatic? How is the background relating to the foreground? Change your position to make that relationship better, too.
Foreground and background can be very important parts of a strong landscape photo. Be sure they work together.
6. Use a wide-angle in close
The first response to a big landscape is often to pull out the wide-angle and step back. Instead of doing that, choose a wide-angle focal length, then get in close to something cool in the foreground. Or find a small landscape that you can get into with your wide-angle.
Wide-angles up close give a striking foreground to background relationship.
7. Shoot distant details with a telephoto
Telephoto focal lengths can isolate and enlarge important parts of a landscape, highlighting them in your photo. In addition, telephotos can compress distance and create fascinating patterns and colors because of that.
A telephoto can bring in important landscape details at a distance from your camera position.
8. Get ultimate sharpness
There is no special trick or expensive lens that is needed for truly sharp photos of the landscape. You just need a solid tripod. The major cause of unsharp landscape photos is camera movement during exposure. The tripod restricts that problem. And never skimp on a cheap tripod – that can be worse than no tripod at all! A good tripod is an investment that will do more for sharpness than buying an expensive “pro” lens.
No lens or camera will give its best results for landscape work if you are not regularly using a tripod.
9. Bring out clouds in the sky
White clouds against a blue sky can be a wonderful part of a photo. A polarizing filter can help. Rotate it over your lens until the clouds stand out better against the sky. However, a polarizing filter mainly works when you are photographing with the sun at one side or the other. If you are facing the sun or facing away from it, the polarizer will have little effect on skies.
A polarizing filter can help bring out clouds in a blue sky, but you have to be at the right angle to the sun.
10. Try black-and-white photography by shooting it in your camera
Most digital cameras will let you shoot black-and-white photos in the camera so that your photos display in black-and-white on your LCD. Black-and-white photography is not simply about removing color. It is about tonal, textural and sharpness contrasts, all of which will show up on your LCD when you shoot in black-and-white. If your camera shoots RAW + JPEG, you get the best of color and black-and-white. The JPEG will be in black-and-white, but the RAW will be in color (it always is).
Most digital cameras will let you shot black-and-white images directly. This is a great way to see in black-and-white and get better photos with that medium.