Lessons learned: landscape photography

These are some things about landscape photography that we have learned from our research, reading and experience.

1. Composition

Before taking the photo, visualize the scene in your mind. Think about the composition that will translate what you see in your mind into a photograph.

  • Rule of Thirds – Place important elements on the thirds. Golden ratio and golden spiral are also great composition tools.
  • Leading Lines – leading lines that point to the subject, zig-zag shapes that lend interest, or perspective lines that draw the viewer into the scene.
  • Fill the Frame – If you have a dominant element that is very interesting, fill the whole frame with it.
  • Use Frames – Frame your shot with an archway, a window, foreground foliage, etc. Watch the edge of the frame to make sure nothing unwanted is there.

2. Light

Light is incredibly important. The golden hour and hours around sunrise and sunset are great, but filtered light can also be nice. Even when the sky is overcast, there is still diffused light.

Where there is light, there is also shadow. It’s important to consider how light falls onto the subject to create shadow. The contrast between light and shadow, the transitions in between, and the way that light and shadow interplay can greatly change the visual dynamics.

Black and white photos can clearly show the contrast between light and shadow.

3. Subject

Landscapes need an interesting foreground and background. Determine your subject and place that subject optimally.

Pay attention to the placement of foreground elements. You don’t want them to detract from the scene.

If you can’t easily find a subject, you can use the sun / moon.

4. Sun / Moon

The sun and the moon are the brightest objects in the sky. They invoke something primal in us. Including one of them in the photo can create instant dynamism and interest. Shoot at a high aperture and stop down the lens to get a nice sun star. Watch for the flare, and try to place the lens flares in locations that are less distracting.

5. Horizon

Straighten the horizon unless you’re intentionally going for a crooked one. Use the level on the camera, but don’t be afraid to change the horizon in post. Along those lines, also keep trees upright.

6. Perspective

Close one eye to view the scene from a flat perspective. Squint a bit to blur details and see things as general outlines, shapes and colors. Change your perspective. Get down low or get up high. Turn yourself around. Find a different angle.

Take both landscape and portrait orientations. You might want to display that scene later in different ways, for example on monitor in landscape orientation, or a magazine page in portrait orientation.

Take photos of the same location. Landscapes are constantly changing due to weather, seasons, time of day, or physical changes in the location itself. These photos were taken only about an hour apart:

7. Depth of Field

Large depth of field is desirable in landscape photography. If you have both close and far away subjects, stop down to a large aperture such as F10 or above to get the entire scene in focus. If your subject is generally farther away, you can be around F5.6 or F8.

Although mostly you want to go hyperfocal and get everything sharp, sometimes creatively using DOF can result in interesting photos.

8. Gear

We generally use wide angle lenses for landscapes, but sometimes longer focal lengths can do great, too. We also have neutral-density and polarizing filters. When using ND filters and doing long exposures, a good and sturdy tripod is a must. It’s also a good idea to use the self timer feature or a remote shutter on a tripod to increase sharpness. Keep in mind that wind or breeze might move your subject during long exposures.

9. RAW

Always shoot in RAW to ensure the most latitude and dynamic range for post-processing. Post-processing is a whole subject unto itself.

10. Story

Try to tell a story, convey a mood and inspire emotion.

Take time to explore. Part of the joy of landscape photography is being out in nature and having fun. Taking photos is just a bonus!