The most basic definition of landscape photography is that it involves shooting natural subjects outdoors such a waterfalls, rivers, rapids, deserts, snow, fog, beaches, trees, fields, sunsets, and seasons. This definition of landscape work can easily be expanded to add ‘cityscapes’ including buildings, streets, bridges, statues, parks and so forth. You might even include images with people in them as long as the people blend into the scene or enhance the impact of the image by providing a reference for scale.
Recent interest in the work of photographers such as Peter Lik has boosted the status of
landscape work. Peter’s energy and drive to get the best landscape shots has helped to bring landscape photography back from decades spent in relative oblivion. It’s not that photographers weren’t motivated by the idea of being the next Ansel Adams. It’s just that they couldn’t talk about it with anyone else without boring them.
You might be motivated to impress family and friends with some photos of great natural scenes you’ve visited. Here’s a tough question for you. How do you capture the grandeur of a scene that is a mile wide, full with natural detail and numerous subtle color shifts while dealing with issues related to lighting and contrast? I should also remind you that your audience might be viewing your image in an electronic format as small as 5 inches measured diagonally.
Beyond the technical basics of assuring that you have set the exposure and shutter speed to produce a viewable image and assuming you have composed the picture area in a satisfactory way, there are a few additional considerations that can make you new landscape photo great. You don’t need to squeeze all of these ideas into each shot. Just one of these improvements can be enough to make the difference.
Focal Point – Landscape photos require a focal point to attract and hold viewer interest. A fallen tree within a forest scene, a pier along the beach and an old covered bridge near a stream are examples.
Include the Foreground – Including foreground elements can improve some landscapes by giving visual clues about depth while adding a focal point. You might include an especially interesting subject such as a horse, small building or a piece of farm equipment thus creating a smaller composition within your larger scene.
Depth – Enhance your pictures by indicating depth. A road that leads deeper into the shot, railroads or streams are all good choices but are not always available. Insure that you choose a foreground object that it is far enough away to be in focus with the background. This is all related to the concept is called diminishing perspective where the further objects are placed from the camera the smaller they appear. The effect will become more apparent in cases where you are shooting rows of similar objects. The viewer’s mind will determine that these objects are the same size, while adding a sense of depth to the photo. This technique works well with street photography.
Converging Lines is another way to describe the above effect and is another popular way to add a sense of depth. The edge lines of a road or the rails of a railway are examples of lines that are known to be parallel, but the further they are from the viewer the more they appear to converge toward each other until they appear to meet at a vanishing point. These converging lines in photo tend to draw the eye through the frame thus creating a sense of depth.
Varying Light Values by Distance is another technique. This could be called layering. Remember pictures you’ve seen that contain succeeding rows of hills each further in the distance and each more distant row is a different shade of green or blue? Shooting through light brush in a rural scene or past a shorter building in a cityscape is another method to add a sense of depth to your shot.
Overall Uniformity of Light, Color, Contrast and Shading – There is a particular genre of landscape photograph that is defined by how the photographer chose to convey the various colors and the qualities of shading contained within the scene. A scene composed of colors or contrast values that don’t vary greatly from edge to edge can serve to connect all the picture elements into one coherent theme. Scenes with many buildings all in the same quality of light or of a grouping of trees of the same type are examples. Shooting during fog, rain, sunrise or sunset are possible ways to impose greater overall uniformity of light values, colors, contrast and shading upon a scene that would not otherwise present such properties. Utilize that consistency to form a strong message.
Convey a Message
Of course it’s not only about recording the view as you see it. It’s a lot about communicating the feeling of being part of that scene. It’s about saying, “I feel a connection to this place and time. I want to preserve it and share it with others.” When you really get excited about a particular landscape you want to preserve the mood, feeling or message of the place and to share the associated state of mind with other people.
Experiment with exposure. Try a number of practice shots to see how accurate your camera and your judgment are in terms of the results you expected. Don’t be overwhelmed when you’re having difficulty trying to capture the entire view in one shot. Your shot may contain several smaller scenes that deserve individual attention. Each element of the larger landscape can be composed as a great image which conveys its own strong message.
A photo intended as social commentary is another way to send a message to your viewers. Make sure that all the elements are present in the image that are needed for your viewers to understand your message. For example, you may be documenting picketers promoting awareness of low wages at a store chain. In this case your ideal single shot would include depiction of the picketer as an individual person with a concern, enough of the picket sign to show their message and the store and its name should be visible in the background. Of course, you don’t give up if you can’t grab the ideal shot. You gladly settle for two or more shots that do convey the message.
Wide Angle Lens
A wide angle lens is well suited to landscape photography. Serious landscape photography requires mastering the use of wide angle lenses. For most of us one good wide angle zoom can handle many situations while reducing equipment costs. When you want to capture the big picture including a sky full with clouds, a wide angle lens can put a lot in one image. There will be times when a tripod comes in handy also.
Natural Light Considerations
For landscape composition be conscious of how you are dividing the space between sky and land. A large sky may be what you want but it will also tend to darken the exposure of the land. Setting the horizon high to include mostly land will highlight elements such as waterfalls. Just be sure your sky is not washing out from overexposure in these situations.
Your best times for shooting outdoor natural daylight photos is up to about 10 AM and then after 3 PM. It’s all about lighting and the position of the sun. Around noon it’s very difficult to get pleasing photo results outdoors. If you are there for a while try the experiment of shooting the same scenery at different times of day. I’ve always been intrigued by finding ways to ‘paint’ a scene with nothing but natural light. I have nothing against flash but natural light shots are much more of a challenge with rewards that can be commensurate to your efforts.
The possibilities are endless when you think in terms of adding elements such as weather, season or twilight to you photos. They may not always be the main point of the shot but they immediately set a mood. Elements such as fog, rain, snow and an unusually colorful sky can make a great landscape shot even better.
Sunsets – and sunrises have never gone out of style so enjoy satisfying your urge to shoot them. Many landscape scenes can be enhanced by shooting them at sunrise or sunset. Protect your eyes at all times. Be careful not to damage your camera and never shoot the sun unless it is at the horizon. In terms of dramatic lighting the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset can be thought of as golden hours.
The Moon – Putting the moon in your shoot is sometimes possible. You’ll notice that the moon doesn’t show up as large in the photo as it appeared to you at the time of the shot. You could try to address that problem with a telephoto lens.
Seasonal Clues – When you are able to add elements such as autumn foliage, spring blossoms, summer grass or snow they will add interest to your landscapes and will help to tell the story.
Rain – In light overcast with rain that’s not so heavy as to block the view you can grab a great mood shot and your picture will benefit from the even lighting. Don’t worry about actually capturing the rain. It will have to be closer to a downpour to show results. Rather look for evidence of rain such as drops of water falling from a leaf or a puddle to include in your shot. For rainy cityscapes look for light reflected from the wet street and people carrying umbrellas
Fog – You could make a composition with a person or object in the foreground and the fog in the background or you could use large objects such as a bridge or office building wrapped in fog at a moderate distance. The easiest way to capture fog is to make a composition which includes a patch of fog at distance while you stand in the clear.
Water Features – Including a pond, river, lake, fountain or ocean in your scene is a great way to tie into my ‘mood enhancers’ concept. Such water features tend to highlight the great differences as well as the higher level integration between the worlds of land and water. Also, water features offer the opportunity to catch a reflection of land based objects upon the nearby water.