While the intelligence of your camera is pretty phenomenal, it still won’t creatively think for itself. When it comes to Landscape photography, there are significant ways you can improve your shots by understanding these tips. We explore compositional and technical secrets that will let you capture those intimidating vast landscapes with your camera.
1. Understand Natural Light
Being aware of qualities of natural light such as direction, intensity, and color allows you to better plan and utilize natural light in your landscape photography.
Intensity of Light
Around the noon hour, the sun is high in the sky and light can be tough and cast horrible shadows. The noon hour is for scouting out locations, not so much for shooting. Unless you’re going to use the high sun to intentionally play with shadows, you should probably avoid this hour. The best times for photographing landscapes are just after sunrise and before sunset. You will find the light is much more pleasing and easier to work with. This is called the Golden Hour. Partially cloudy days are also great because they cast soft and diffused light. A simple exercise to learn about intensity is to photograph the same landscape scene during the golden hours and high noon. You will notice a significant change in color and quality.
Direction of Light
This quality refers to where the light is placed. Relative to your subject, light can come from the side, back, or front. Front produces great subject exposure. Back produces great silhouettes. And side lighting can be great for bringing out shadows and textures of your subject. Playing with the direction of lighting can be a lot of fun! Find an object in the front of your landscape and play with different angles and times of day to see how the direction of light makes a big difference. If you want to understand this concept find a dark room, place a baseball or hardboiled egg on a table and use a flashlight to go around the object. You’ll see how light exposes and cast shadows in different ways and directions. It’s a very simple exercise that will help with improving your images.
Color of Light
Sunlight’s Kelvin value (it’s color) changes throughout the day. During the morning and afternoon Golden Hour, the Sun will have a warmer and golden cast to it. This lighting is perfect for capturing dramatic landscape scenes. Try finding a body of water with surrounding trees, or a beach with multiple objects, and test this out by using the same settings morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. You will see a big difference in colors between the golden hours and all others.
Understanding how natural light interacts with your subject or scenery will develop your creativity to new levels and dramatically improve your images. You’ll start to see the beauty of light in a different and exciting way. Try using both light and shadows to create your landscape image. Resist the temptation to only photograph the scenes that are well lit.
2. Look for Balance (Rule of Thirds)
The composition is typically the most important aspect of landscape photography. It explains how elements of the scene are arranged and interact to draw the viewer’s eye.
“Composition” hints at the story, which is a key ingredient to a perfect photo. Does it tell a story? Good composition is the difference between a boring, run-of-the-mill photo and ones that catch attention.
Rule of Thirds is a basic yet powerful composition rule. You can easily visualize it by splitting the frame into nine equal sections by two horizontal and two vertical lines. Most SLR cameras offer a thirds grid in the viewfinder (you can probably find it in the display settings). The main idea is to place your subject(s) on one of the four points where these lines intersect or along the lines. It won’t take long before you use this rule without consciously thinking. It’s like riding a bike, once you have it, you never lose it.
Remember, you can align the horizon on either 1/3 or the 2/3 horizontal line. The decision is depending on if the sky or the ground has more interesting elements. For example, if the ground has more interesting elements like wildflowers, be sure to move up the horizon to the 2/3 horizontal line.
If you would like to learn more about composition please read these 20 photography composition tips.
3. Frame Your Scenery
Frame your scene using trees, foliage, or anything else that’s vertical to help draw your eye to the background or subject. Accentuate the landscape and use it to your advantage. Always know what you want an eye drawn to. What is your subject? Answer that, then compose the shot. In the image below, I used a variation of objects to frame and draw the eye towards the subject. You’ll need to practice this in order to train your eye to see a possible frame. Next time you’re out shooting, focus on finding frames and practice moving around to see how the frame can change an image.
4. Know the Rules, Then Break Them and Get Creative.
While the rule of thirds should be used in most cases, we’re all aware that rules are made to be broken. Once you practice the Rule of Thirds it may become second nature to you. You may always be tempted to focus and recompose according to Rule of Thirds. However, if the scene is bilaterally symmetrical (evenly split), ignore the rule of thirds. You can see examples in farm fields, a stand-alone tree, and piers.
5. Look for Symmetry
Go find the first reflection you can and create an image with it. (I don’t mean a selfie in the bathroom mirror either). Look for mirrored images in the clouds, on water, ice, puddles, mountains, etc..
Personally, I love to include reflections in my landscape photography. They are a creative addition to various types of photography, but with landscapes particularly, they create stunning and mysterious images.
For the shot like the one below, you’ll want to put the rule of thirds away and position the bank of a lake or pond across the center of the frame to split the scene into two equal parts. Upper being land, lower being the reflection. Keep in mind that you can even find reflections in a little puddle in a parking lot. Again, practice is key. Walk around looking for different angles. You’ll be surprised what a five-foot move can do for an image.
6. Include Foreground Elements
It may be tempting to always use a wide-angle lens and step back when capturing landscapes. Instead, get in close to something interesting in the foreground. Using a wide angle lens can add depth to your photos by highlighting both foreground and background elements.
7. Use a Telephoto Lens
More often than not, using an ultra-wide frame will confuse the viewer by taking the importance away from your subject. To avoid this, you can use a telephoto lens to isolate your subject in a landscape. A telephoto lens will also compress distances and can create incredible bokeh while highlighting the details of your subject. If you don’t own a 70-300 or equivalent, you can rent one and test out the difference it makes.
8. Play With White Balance and Make It Your Friend.
If your winter landscape shots with white snow come out with a bluish tint, that means you are using the wrong white balance.
What Exactly is White Balance?
Your camera has a mechanism to analyze lighting conditions so that white in the scene appears white in your photo. This helps ensure the other colors appear as natural as possible. This is one advantage digital photography has over traditional film.
Your camera’s automatic white balance setting will be your friend in most conditions. There will be times, however when you want to warm up a picture to enhance the color. I have listed two examples below.
The best way to do this is set your camera’s white balance to “cloudy.” This will deepen the colors of the sunrise. Shooting in RAW will also allow you to change the white balance in post processing. I highly recommend doing this.
Shooting in Snow
If your camera has the option to adjust the Kelvin, I’d suggest setting it roughly to 6300-6500k. If your camera doesn’t have that option, setting it to shady or cloudy can work also. My favorite is to set it to “wireless flash” (WF). This tricks your camera to think it’s shooting with a flash. I live in Alaska and shoot in the snow often. This has given me incredible results.
Practice taking the same photo with different white balance settings. This is the best way get a feel for the changes each setting evokes. Keep mental notes until you have a good idea of what each setting does. In time, you will come to automatically sense which setting is best for your particular situation and it will be second nature.
9. Correct Exposure is Important in Landscape Photography
Nothing ruins a landscape photo like a blown out sky. Learning to use your histogram is key for getting great exposure. There is a common rule called “Sunny 16.” Basically, in bright sunlight, set the aperture to ƒ16 and the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO. In other words, if you are shooting on a sunny day with the ISO set at 100, the basic exposure will be 1/100 second (or closest approximation, 1/125 sec.) at ƒ16.
This rule can be used for more than just sunny days. You can use it to cover all types of lighting. For example, unless it’s overcast or low-light, you shouldn’t need to use larger than ƒ8 with this rule. As long as you know how to pair the lighting to its brightness level, you should be able to figure out the correct aperture. Using the Sunny 16 rule requires you to shoot in full Manual (the M setting on the mode dial). Manual mode allows you to adjust aperture and shutter speed settings independently of one another. Set your camera’s ISO to a value that best matches the conditions in which you are shooting- select a low ISO setting for bright conditions and a higher one if light levels are low.
This is a basic way to getting the correct exposure, but like anything, practice makes perfect.
Most of all, go have fun! Experiment and challenge yourself beyond your capabilities. Don’t just look for a new location, squeeze everything you can out of the landscape right around you.
10. Use a Smaller Aperture
Ƒ-stop– Size matters! Despite what people might say, keep it small.
The smaller the aperture the more of your landscape you will have in focus. I like to keep mine within the ƒ13 to 22 range when possible. A smaller aperture will give you the greatest depth of field. In other words, if you have your aperture set to ƒ22 then the background of your image will deeper dimension to it. If you have your aperture set to ƒ2.8 only a very narrow amount of the landscape will be in focus. If you’re wanting a crisp image all the way through, It’s great practice to shoot at the smallest aperture possible.
Note: You will have to take into consideration what focal length you’re shooting at also. This will affect your depth of field. Look at the diagram I give to my students created below.
Thank you for reading these tips, we hope you have learned something new that will improve your landscape photography. Do you have anything to add to this discussion? If so, please share your tips, questions, and photos in the comment section below.
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