Landscape photography looks so easy. We’ve all pulled up to a scenic overlook or arrived at our destination on a hike, and said, “Wow!” But as most of us have also found out, putting that “wow” into our photographs is more complicated than merely putting the camera to our eye and snapping the shutter. Luckily, there are some straightforward techniques to master landscape photography and help you create images that convey the emotional impact you experienced.
I like to have an image in mind before I leave home. Guidebooks and online resources are great for getting an overview of a park or region, but I like to continue my research by studying detailed topographic maps. I’m looking for dramatic towers, canyons and peaks that could be good backgrounds. Exciting topography isn’t enough, however. I also try to identify subjects that will get good light either early or late in the day. A jagged 13,000-foot peak might make a great background, but if it’s shadowed at both sunrise and sunset, I’ll probably keep looking. Once I’m in the field, I’m also always ready to abandon my idea if something better presents itself. Flexibility when working in nature is always important.
Scout Thoroughly Once You Arrive At Your Destination
Intimate landscapes can be beautiful, but my customers and I are most interested in grand landscapes. When I’m scouting, I’m searching for a place where a great foreground interacts seamlessly with a spectacular background and where there’s potential for superb light. A lush group of flowers won’t work well in a grand landscape if a grove of tall trees blocks the view of the mountain backdrop. In addition to examining the area 10 feet ahead, you should also look for new vantage points. Your topographical map can help you visualize what you’ll see if you hike to the far side of the lake or up the hill to that rock outcrop, but it’s not as useful as laying your eyes on the scene. I’ve often felt I’ve walked 20 miles for every memorable shot I’ve taken. Great landscape photography is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, and a good pair of boots.
Arrive Early, Stay Late
Few great landscape photographs are made at noon. One reason is that the color of midday light is flat and contrast is low, and the shadows at noon are very short. The part of our visual system that sees depth is literally color-blind. We need shadows to see texture and form. The long shadows created by a low sun angle early, and late, in the day give images a three-dimensional quality. If it’s clear at the horizon where the sun rises and sets, the light becomes warm, which isn’t only beautiful in its own right, but also very different from the commonplace white light at midday. In every field, we treasure things that are rare. Every sunrise and sunset is unique, so do whatever it takes to be at a great location during those magical minutes. Sleep is for photographers who don’t drink enough coffee.
Compose With Your Feet
Many of my students arrive at our shooting location, plant their feet and immediately set up their tripods with their cameras at eye level because that, of course, is the most comfortable height for looking through a lens. Although they do swivel their cameras and zoom their lenses searching for the best composition, which is good, they rarely compose with their feet. They don’t examine the scene from ground level, knee level and waist level to see what looks best. Precise composition is key, and it’s my belief that people appreciate a landscape photograph more if it looks like moving the camera even an inch would significantly change the composition for the worse. Throw in some rare light at sunrise or sunset, and the photograph looks like a precise record of one particular place at one particular time rather than a photograph that could have been snapped anywhere within a 100-yard radius anytime between now and next Tuesday.
Use A Tripod
A good tripod is essential for shooting at shutter speeds that can’t be handheld. It will also boost the quality of your images in a less-obvious way. Using a tripod allows you to examine your composition at leisure and tweak it until it’s perfect.
Always Do Border Patrol And Background Checks
Our visual system has a tremendous capacity for selective attention. With our attention fixated on the main subject, we easily overlook distracting branches and grasses sticking into the frame. It’s critically important to do “border patrol” by running your eye around every edge of every frame, every time. Check first to make sure nothing unwanted is protruding into the frame. Next, make sure that all parts of the subject are either included cleanly, with a little room to breathe, or cut off cleanly, like you planned it that way. The worst sin is letting a major part of the subject just barely touch the edge of the frame. Next, run a background check: examine carefully how the subject relates to the background, as well as to every other element in the frame.
Don’t Attempt To Shoot Six Different Images During The Two Minutes Of Peak Light
You may have been advised to “work the scene,” which means experimenting with a variety of compositions until arriving at the best one. While that advice is sound, it needs qualification. The peak color of sunrise and sunset light rarely lasts more than a few minutes. It’s impossible to “work the scene” during such a short amount of time. The best strategy is usually to decide on the most evocative composition, dial it in to perfection, wait for the perfect light, then nail the shot. It’s tempting, I know, to move at the last minute if the clouds light up in every direction except the direction where your camera is pointed. All too often, however, attempting to move means settling for an inferior composition. By the time you set up the new composition, the light there, too, is likely to have faded and now has become good for the composition you originally chose. Before you can set up again, that light, too, has faded, and you end up with nothing. Remember that even the best sky, by itself, is only one component of a great landscape image. In addition to beautiful light, you’ll need that great composition you worked so hard to achieve to really make the image soar.
Think Through Your Exposure Strategy Before The Light Peaks
Learn to recognize exposure danger zones: situations where your camera won’t automatically give you the right exposure. Any subject that isn’t midtone—sculpted snow, waterfalls, black water-washed rocks—will require exposure compensation. Other exposure danger zones include any scene with a large dynamic range, meaning, a big difference between the darkest shadow and brightest highlight. Examples include scenes with a deeply shaded foreground and sunny background; backlit scenes, particularly with the sun in the frame; photographs taken inside a forest on a sunny day; and reflections shot with a wide-angle lens because the difference in brightness between the subject and its reflection can be four or five stops. Once you’ve recognized an exposure danger zone, shoot a test frame and examine the histogram. The best single exposure in a high-contrast scene will place the brightest highlights just left of the right side of the graph. If a single frame can’t capture all the highlight and shadow detail you need, you’ll have to shoot more than one exposure and combine them, either manually in Photoshop, with the Photomerge > HDR utility in Lightroom or with a program like Aurora HDR 2017.
Repeat Visits To Promising Locations Are Often Productive
Great light and interesting skies don’t happen every day. If the light and weather don’t cooperate on your first try at a promising location, make the effort to return as many times as necessary to produce the image you have in mind. Visiting a new area every time you go out is fun, but the pros know that it’s the repeat visits that often produce the best images.
Always Ask Yourself If The Image Could Be Improved
Would it be better at a different time of day? What about shooting at night? What about an entirely different season? Do flowers bloom at that location in the spring? Are there trees or shrubs that turn color in the fall? What would the scene look like with a blanket of fresh snow? Remember that the angle of sunrise and sunset varies by 60 degrees between winter solstice and summer solstice at the latitude of San Francisco, Denver and Philadelphia. That’s a huge difference in the angle of light on your subject. Take the time to learn the many moods of the locations where you like to shoot. Then return again and again until you’ve created images that truly capture a sense of place.
Glenn Randall’s most recent book is “The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography,” published by Rocky Nook. You can learn more about his work at glennrandall.com.