Though I love other types of photography as well, landscapes are what I started out with, and while only you can decide whether or not I’m good at them, I can at least say I’m prolific. I definitely take more landscapes than anything else, and because it’s fun to share, I’d like to give a few tips on landscape photography that I’ve picked up or discovered myself in the last couple of years.
There are literally hundreds of sites with endless amounts of information on the fundamentals of taking landscapes; everything from choosing your aperture to composition, and there are probably much more important things to read than this post, stuff like the rule of thirds and leading lines and the right type of light to take photos in is written on constantly because it’s more important to know about than anything else. I’m not going to try and repeat these things here, firstly because you’ll probably have read it before, but mainly because people with much more talent and experience than me will explain that kind of thing much better. What I want to do is simply give a list of random tips I’ve picked up that can make a difference to your photography, but most importantly, are a bit different from the ones you see in countless blog posts every day. I’m not saying these are breaking any new ground, but they are certainly a lot less common. They're not in any order of importance either, in case you're wondering.
You’ll probably already need to have a grasp of the basics before you get any use out of these, and if you’re very new to all this I recommend the Digital Photography School as a brilliant starting point. If you have any more of these type of tips, let me know in the comments!
1) Your clothing and footwear can be as important as your camera gear.
My favourite landscapes usually involve taking photos from places that are dirty, muddy, wet or freezing cold, and often a mixture of some of the above. While it’s important to have the right camera gear for the right photos, it’s almost as important to have the right clothing and in particular the right footwear. A good rain and wind-proof set of clothing will keep you warm and give you a much better chance of getting into the right places to take good landscapes. A good pair of waterproof boots, such as my Meindl Island Pros, or something else with gore-tex waterproofing, will allow you to wade through mud and stand in water, and more importantly, as good landscapes take time and patience, they’ll allow you to stay there for a long time without getting disheartened or sick.
2) Don’t be afraid of the big, bad telephoto lens!
While the ‘traditional’ focal length for landscapes is usually wide or even ultra-wide, some of my favourite photos were taken with a telephoto lens, the Sigma 70-300 f4 - 5.6. A long focal length allows you to compress distances, giving you overlapping lines, and isolate subjects. Also, as you don’t need fast shutter speeds (you’ll be using a tripod for all these - I hope!) you can get away with a cheap telephoto lens like I have. Here are a couple of examples of photos taken with focal lengths of 200mm+
3) Good weather is not necessarily the best weather.
While I love sunny days, particuarly here in Ireland where they’re rarer than hen’s teeth, they don’t necessarily make the best landscape photographs. Often, stormy or partially cloudy skys can give impressive and more interesting results - this is one of my favourite ‘ominous sky’ photographs - it had been largely a miserable and wet day:
While completely overcast days are likely to be useless to you, check the weather forecast for mixed rain and sunny spells, and just wait around for a sunny period to take photos.
4) Forget the ‘Rule of Thirds’.
This one will have many photographers shaking their fists angrily at their computer screen. A very basic rule of photography is to place points of interest along lines dissecting the photo into thirds. It’s a great rule, and if you google it you’ll find countless information about it. Basically, in Landscape photography, it often boils down to having 1/3 sky and 2/3 land, or the other way around, rather than placing the horizon in the middle. When I say “forget the Rule of Thirds”, I’m not advocating putting the horizon in the middle, but rather taking this rule to new extremes. I have found that many of my favourite photos have, for example, 1/4 sky and 3/4 land, or even 1/5 land and 4/5 sky. It works particularly well if one of these two elements are much more interesting than the other. Again, I give you a couple of examples:
5) It's all about the foreground...
Okay, this one isn't exactly a state secret, but it's something that helped my landscapes enourmously and I want to pass it on to other newbies. When I started with landscapes, I assumed that the most important element of the photo was the background. This makes sense, because usually when you're looking at a beautiful scene you're casting your eyes to faraway elements: the sky, mountains or lakes, for example. However, when I took photos that just concentrated on the background, I was constantly dissapointed by my results when I looked at the shots on my computer. I think it's because the 2D image created by the camera can't capture the scene in the same impressive way your eyes can. Now the landscapes I'm happiest with are those with a strong foreground element, with the background being almost relegated to secondary importance. At the very least, a strong foreground will draw you in and lead you to bring your attention to the impressive background you originally wanted to capture. So, frame something in the foreground (and if there's nothing there, move, or move something in!). Two of my favourite photos are almost exclusively about the foreground:
6) Landscapes can be portraits too!
I mean this in two different ways. First, I would say that all of the best landscapes I've taken, and most of those I've seen, are really portraits of a single element in a landscape. This 'single element' can be a number of things: A physical element like a mountain peak, or something less tangible like a particularly strong pattern of light. There are exceptions to the rule: Ansel Adams' photographs impress me because of the beautiful range of tones, amazing technical ability and strong overall composition, but I think that the rest of us mere mortals need to simplify things in order to get great photos. A question I often ask myself when critiquing my own photos is: "what is this a photo of?", and if I can't answer the question in one word or line, or the answer is just "a view of ___" then it's probably not an interesting photo. I like the following photo because it has one strong element: the rock:
Secondly, and this is a much simpler tip - don't forget that landscapes can be taken with your camera in portrait orientation too! As you can see, many of the photos above were taken in portrait. I find it works particularly well when you have very strong vertical leading lines, and if you really want to place the emphasis on either the sky or the land, and not both.
7) Sometimes, just don't bother.
Well, this is one tip that you definitely won't see very often! I know it sounds a bit depressing, but I find that if learning what type weather or viewpoints definitely won't give you good results will actually save you from being disheartened in the long run. There have been occasions when I've specifically set apart time and effort to go and take landscape shots, maybe even driving or walking for a good deal of time, only to find out that the conditions are just no good. Rather than spend hours taking shots, trying to squeeze something from scene only to go home, look at the results and become depressed, I think it's better to give up, go home straight away, and take what you can from it. If the weather was bad but the location was good, you can think of it as scouting for your next attempt. If the location was bad, console your self in the fact that at least you won't waste a beautiful day there by going back another time.
8 ) You have to post-process your images.
Well, I hate saying "you have to" about anything, but I think it's an important point. To put it simply: I would say that very close to one hundred per cent of your favourite landscape photographs have been post-processed - whether that be a simple contrast or saturation adjustment, dodging and burning, or a complicated HDR. When I started taking photos, I didn't realise this, and thought I could never even come close to the photos I saw around me by seemingly ordinary photographers.
I would say, at the very least, you should be adding a decent bit of contrast and adjusting the saturation. I also find myself fiddling with the colour hues in pictures with extremely strong colour elements - the camera is stupid and my our eyes have a much better idea of what a scene actually looked like. Also, I use Graduated Neutral-Density Filters in almost every landscape photo I take now: I highly recommend getting a set. Although this is done in-camera it is technically altering the scene so I include it here. Remember: you're not cheating - you're just levelling the playing field.
9) A photograph doesn't have to be what you 'saw', just what you 'remember'.
These are very different things: The first is objective (to a certain extent) and the second is subjective. Without wanting to get to philosophical about the whole thing, I personally don't see why a photo has to necessarily bear much relation to what was actually there, within reason. If I'm remembering a scene, and a feeling of warmth or cold or fear comes into my mind, then representing this in the photo through tweaking things is arguably at least, or perhaps more accurate a reflection of the scene I witnessed. After all, the scene doesn't exist any more except in my memory - so shouldn't it be that I attempt to recreate? Somebody said that the only truly objective photo would be taken from space with a camera with a very quiet shutter. Every photo is subjective: embrace the fact rather fight it, and ignore those (generally non-photographers!) who look down on your photographs because they believe otherwise. The following photo probably wasn't quite so blue - but, you know what? I don't care. I like how it looks and it's how I envisage the scene in my head. That's good enough for me.