How To Take Landscape Photography That Invokes Emotion

how to take landscape photography
Photo by Sonja Guina

Landscape photography is very much about seeing into the soul of a place. At least that’s my opinion. It’s the reason I take landscape photographs. I can take a picture of just about any scene and say “it’s  a landscape isn’t that pretty?” but to communicate with viewers I need to dig deeper into a place and look at its heart and soul. What makes a place significant? What makes it special? What makes it so inspiring?

If I don’t do this, if I don’t dig deep, then all I’m doing is documenting a specific place and time. Without communicating the heart and soul of a place, my photograph simply becomes a visual reference.

Landscapes Are More Than Pretty Places

For me, the mark of a truly effective landscape photograph is one which stirs emotions. The photograph might want to make me visit the location, or it can create a sense of nostalgia. It doesn’t matter what emotion it evokes, but the photograph inspires something in those that view it.

I recently stumbled across this post by Astrid, one of our Photobloggers. I think her landscapes inspire a sense of calm but also the desire to go for a walk in the early morning light. For me, this means the images are effective. They get at the soul of the place.

how to take landscape photography
The prayer flags add foreground interest to the composition and help the viewer establish an emotional connection with it. Photo by Amy Zhang

Emotions Bring Photographs to Life

In my humble opinion, one should always begin a landscape session with a few quiet moments in which we study the area and consider what it is we want to communicate. For me, I am drawn to places in which I find a sense of awe or beauty. It is these two emotions I usually aim to communicate to others.  The world and its beauty blow me away daily. I have studied the work of writers like Henry David Thoreau and I love how he sees so much beauty in the world. I try to show the same in my photographs. Don’t just take my word for it, listen to these famous landscape photographers. They support the idea that a great photograph creates emotions.

“I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers or remain in their hearts.” Anne Geddes

“Photography for me is not looking; it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” Don McMullin

Creating emotion in a photograph requires careful thought and deliberate choices in how we compose our images. If we are to create more than a visual reference, then we need to study the landscape and consider the ways in which we photograph them. There are some purposeful techniques we can use that will help to create meaningful landscape photographs.

how to take landscape photography
The foreground rocks are interesting and the winding road creates a leading line into the photograph. Photo by Andrew Ridley

Learning How To Take Landscape Photography Doesn’t Need To Be Challenging

The goal is to have others feel the same sense of awe and wonder what made me stop and consider the place. I can’t communicate my feelings to a viewer without carefully composing my images. I might snap a few quick images without any real consideration to composition, but after that moment of emotion, it becomes time to carefully view the landscape and decide how to frame it. The goal is to have others share in my emotions. Painters work so hard to be purposeful in their compositions and, honestly, so should we.

One of the ways in which I create this sense of drama is by creating depth within my images. I like to create layers that communicate meaningful information to my viewers. My images contain a foreground, mid-ground, and background that each adds to the drama and beauty of the scene. It’s a very simple technique that doesn’t require fancy equipment. A simple kit lens and camera is all you need. It’s even possible to use point and shoot cameras because the layering technique is more about positioning yourself in the right place to create drama then it is about having fancy gear.

how to take landscape photography
In this image, the horses add interest to the foreground while still showing off the beautiful landscape behind them. Photo by Kevin Hou

Consider The Layers

One of the first steps when studying the landscape is to consider the layers. Look at the background of your image. What’s a good angle for viewing its beauty and drama? Move around the area carefully and survey the scene. Take the time to really study the place.

Once you’ve established a background for your scene it’s time to find the foreground element that will anchor your image. The foreground sets the stage for your beautiful background. Look for something you can use to draw the viewers eye into the image. It might be a large and interesting rock. It might be a beautiful tree. Whatever it might be, think about how it adds to the sense of drama you want to create. Both the foreground and the background should combine to tell the story of the place you wish to photograph.

Set up your camera for the shot. I shouldn’t have to remind you to use a tripod. You should also be using a wide angle lens. My favorite focal length is around 18mm. Others swear by 24mm but it’s totally up to you.  The foreground element should be somewhere around 2 to 3 feet from your camera.

how to take landscape photography
Keeping a lower perspective can also interest to your landscape images. Photo by Stefanus Martanto Setyo Husodo

The drama comes from playing with that sense of scale. I like to keep my camera position low as well. Often my camera is placed below my waistline, and I tend to kneel when shooting landscapes. If you wish to dramatize the foreground, you can slightly angle the camera downwards. Using this technique will enhance the scale of the foreground.

Find An Interesting Foreground Element

Make sure you are shooting the scene with an aperture of f22. You want to have the full range of sharpness throughout the image. The tripod is necessary because f22 is going to require a longer shutter speed. The next step is to set your focal point. Don’t rely on the camera to choose an element. Instead, choose a point that is somewhere around 7 feet in front of your camera. This will ensure that you get the full depth of field in your image.

The next step is to set your focal point. Don’t rely on the camera to choose an element. Instead, choose a point that is somewhere around 7 feet in front of your camera. This will ensure that you get the full depth of field in your image.

how to take landscape photography
The vegetation on the left side was a good way to lead into the photograph. Photo by Matthew Murphy

It’s now time to shoot your images. Just remember that to create that depth and drama your foreground and your background need to be of equal interest. If one element is stronger than the other, you will lose the sense of drama and viewers will not be engaged equally with each layer of your image.

This technique is so very simple. It requires basic camera gear and the careful, purposeful effort of the person wielding the equipment. That’s right this technique is about seeing not about using Photoshop to alter the image heavily. Of course, the use of graduated filters could be added to this technique. If you have them go for it! They can be very useful and save you loads of time when post-processing your work.

Learn To See A Place

This technique is about seeing the photograph not about using Photoshop to heavily alter the image. Of course, the use of graduated filters is a helpful tool to have around. If you have them go for it! They can be very useful and save you loads of time when post-processing your work.

how to take landscape photography
The light was very flat that day. I had to find a way to communicate something about this place without relying on dramatic. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

There are lots of tips and tricks you can learn when shooting landscape photos. They will certainly help you to build your skills and create beautiful images. Each tip is a way to create variety and to communicate your thoughts and ideas to viewers. Use these techniques to enhance your skills but remember the ultimate goal is to take inspiring images that draw the attention of the viewer to your work.

Use techniques to evoke emotions, never lose sight of this goal. Don’t become mechanical in your shooting. Don’t use techniques without considering the underlying message of your image. Without the attempt to create emotion, your image will still be flat and lifeless. Share some of your favourite composition techniques in the comments below.


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About the author

Erin Fitzgibbon

Erin FitzGibbon is a Portrait, Sport, Fine Art Photographer and Writer from Ontario, Canada. When she's not taking photographs or writing articles she loves to escape to the backcountry for week long adventures with her family.

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