I’ve long been meaning to write down my basic thoughts about how to shoot good landscape photos. These are just my very personal thoughts about my own process, and I’m sure it’s going to be very different for everyone else, and most importantly you have to remember that there are never any set rules in photography. You can go straight against everything I write here and still get phenomenal shots – in fact, when someone who is good enough breaks the rules, that’s usually when you get the best photos.
My basic thought with my photos is to let the viewer discover something new, something you’re not used to seeing in your own everyday life. It could be a new place, a new perspective, a new angle, a new combination of environments and subjects, a new lighting, something that just gets the image to stand out from the crowd.
The light is obviously almost always the key to a good photo (after all, photography means to paint with light). But it doesn’t have to be spectacular or eye-catching light. It just has to be interesting somehow. The worst weather for photography is clearly a sunny, cloudless day, because it just kills everything. Direct sunlight gives harsh contrasts and shadows and is very difficult to work with. An even all-gray weather is pretty boring, but at least you can work with it. The best, in my opinion, is where you have uneven clouds or a very thin cover of clouds, so that different amount of light is let through on different places and directions, creating different lightings with smooth transitions. A thin cloud cover will in fact act as a giant soft box, softening the light from the sun. Even if you can’t always see it with the naked eye, the camera will often catch the small nuances in the lighting, and it’s well worth keeping track of which direction the sun is even on a cloudy day, because it will affect the lighting and shadows in your photos. Different weather phenomena like rain, snow and fog can also help create an interesting photo if used properly.
The right light and the right weather doesn’t come automatically and they are factors which are pretty much out of the photographer’s hands when it comes to landscape photography (but I do envy studio photographers their possibilities to control all the light in their photos). This of course requires a bit of planning. I usually plan my shoots ahead. I scout locations, first with the help of Google Earth, and possibly by going there ahead of time and checking it out. It’s also important to know how the light falls on different places at different times of day, and for this I use apps like GoldenHourOne and The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Apart from that, I keep track of weather forecasts, light phenomenon, and so on, and when the conditions happen to be right for one of the photo ideas I have planned for, I can execute my plan. For instance, if I know that I need a clear sunset in a certain direction with a low cloud cover for a certain photo idea, I can wait for those conditions and then when all the stars align, I can take that particular photo.
Apart from good light and a good location, you also want to have something of interest to the viewer in the photograph. Most people talk about three layers in the photo – a foreground, a middle layer and a background. There has to be something for the viewer to take in, to see, and to reflect on. Optimally, you want a natural flow in the photograph. You want leading lines to guide the eye to the points of interest that you have chosen. You also have to consider that a camera’s perspective is actually very limited to what our eyes and senses can take in when we are on location. For a person, looking our over a wide ocean with a beautiful horizon can be mesmerisingly beautiful and give an immense feeling of grandeur, but captured on a photo without any additional points of interest that kind of view tends to look pretty flat and only capture a feeling of emptiness. It’s also important to consider the perspective of your photo. Instead of capturing the perspective that we usually see the world from, i.e. at eye level and looking straight at the point of interest, try experimenting with other perspectives that the viewer is probably not as used to. You can place the camera at ground level to one side, you can place it high above on a ledge (or even get a drone for completely new perspectives), and so on. It’s also easy to get the idea that you have to shoot with an ultra wide angle to get everything in the shot, but it’s also worth thinking smaller sometimes, to see if there are details you can zoom in on to get a more interesting composition.
And this of course brings us on to the composition, which is a key factor for a great photo. The points of interest and the three layers are the basic parts of the composition – you want them visible and well balances. The perspective is once again important. Be especially mindful of the edges of your composition – you do not want to cut objects off or have them too close to the edge, because that can lead to a cramped and claustrophobic composition. Work with leading lines, but also with negative space, leaving open areas in the composition to give balance and make it easier for the viewer to find his or her way around the photo. Try to avoid too much clutter and messiness, because it will distract the viewer. The KISS! rule is so important, as always (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Often, but not always, it’s a good idea to not center the image on your main point of interest, but place it to one side (maybe using the rule of thirds or the golden rule).
When you are on location and you’ve found the right light and conditions, don’t hurry to set up your camera and start shooting. Take a walk around. Stand still. Take a deep breath, and look around. Take in the surroundings fully. Try to notice details, both near and far, and let them sink in. Think about how they could fit into your possible compositions. Think about your possibilities. Start building your photo in your head before you’ve even touched your camera. Take it easy and try to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings, and get yourself in the mood that you are thinking that your photo should convey. When you’ve done all of this, you can start thinking about how to best make your camera produce the photo you want.
It’s also important that even before you take your photo consider which possibilities are going to be available to you in your editing of the photo. Perhaps you have a scene with very high dynamic range, and you’ll need to use some sort of HDR technique to capture all the details? Could it be a situation where a long exposure might give the serenity the photo needs? Should you do a panorama shot? It’s important to have your vision for the photo clear at the moment of photographing, so that you can collect all the data you need to process it properly when you get back home. There will certainly be more posts on the blog in the future about which techniques you can use, so don’t forget to bookmark it. Here are some photos that illustrate how I both follow and break my guidelines from this post:
Here’s a photo that I think illustrates the importance of perspective. Instead of taking the photo straight out at the ocean, which you instinctively often do when photographing the sea, I went down to the edge of the water and placed my tripod in the actual water, and then I lowered it as much as I could. It gave an entirely new perspective that you might not be used to seeing, especially in conjunction with the long exposure. And it also gave some salt spray on the camera, so make sure you have gear that’s up to the task!
Here’s another shot from the same place. I found lines that I liked in the rocks, so I pointed the camera almost straight down and let the lines draw your eye into the photo.
Here is an example of a dead center composition that completely lacks leading lines, to illustrate how I also break my own guidelines. There’s generous use of negative space to create this composition, which is also not shot with a wide angle. The light was flat and almost non-existing, but the rain and the fog provided the atmosphere the photo needed.
This too is a centered composition with a lot of space in a minimalistic style, but this time in contrast with the photo above, the image is pretty much all about the leading lines. The lines of the jetty meet the lines of the horizon, the sky and the clouds. Once again flat light and incredibly boring weather, but also so much easier to work with than “beautiful weather”.
Also, here’s some brief footage from a photo trip I took to Smögen, Sweden: