Many new photographers dream of creating amazing landscape images. But when they get home, they are disappointed because their images are not sharp, lack good color, or are just plain dull. This article will discuss the three tools you need to shoot better landscapes — and two of them are free!
Yes, for a photographer, light is a tool. Not only that, but it is also the most important tool. The word photography means writing with light.
Writing with what? Light!
And this is especially true with landscapes. One thing that makes landscape photography tricky is the vast scope of the light. There is light on the foreground, on the distant vista and light in the sky. And they may all be different — they probably are. This is especially true mid-day when you have to factor in the haze from direct sunlight.
It is for this reason that professional landscape photographers know the best light will be the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset — what they call the golden hour or the blue hour. Which is best for your shot will depend on the direction you want to shoot, the subject, and the weather. Maybe you want a shot of the sun going down behind the mountains, but it’s going to be cloudy later. Well, the rising sun hitting those mountains from behind you can also create some beautiful images.
Professional landscape photographers will scout out a location and envision the scene they want to capture. Then they will come back day after day, morning and afternoon, until they have the light they need to make that vision happen.
The composition is just as important in landscape photography as any other form. And just as with light, you probably have a multitude of things in the scene you may want to capture or leave out, depending on that vision. A beautiful field or a majestic mountain range may catch your eye, but if that’s all you have, the image will be dull. Use all your knowledge and rules about composition to frame and compose a beautiful landscape.
Ideally, you will have a subject in the foreground, an appealing middle ground, something in the background, and a beautiful sky. Sometimes you can’t get all of these but look for them when composing the shot. Often, a foreground element can be found by simply changing your location or perspective slightly. Find a rock, a tree, a barn, or any other object that can anchor your image in the foreground. This will capture the viewer's eye and lead them into the image.
Look for good color and texture in the middle ground. Maybe you are focusing on the mountains, but if you go down the road a bit, you can incorporate a field of grass rather than dirt. Perhaps moving to one side or the other, you can find a path, a river, or a fence to provide leading lines. Be sure and incorporate your foreground subject, using the rule of thirds if possible.
For the background element, a mountain range, for instance, and the sky, use the rule of thirds here also. What part of the image is the most dynamic? Is the foreground more interesting than the sky? Does the sky have beautiful colors, but the middle ground is a little dull? Apply the rule of thirds and place the background subject in the top or bottom third to utilize the best parts of the image.
Finally, you get to spend a little money.
If you want fantastic landscape images, you can’t just pull over to the side of the road and stick your camera out the window, or worse, shoot through the window. (Trust me, we can tell if you shoot through the window. Don’t do it.) Just as with any other craft, landscape photography requires the proper equipment. The two main pieces of gear you will need are a tripod and a wide-angle lens, with the tripod being by far, the most important.
To shoot proper landscapes and ensure that everything in the image is tack sharp, you need to use a small aperture, such as f16. Of course, the smaller the aperture, the slower the shutter speed. And if you are shooting in good light, the shutter speed is going to be too slow to handhold your camera. If you try to shoot at a faster shutter speed, then you will need a larger aperture, which means either your foreground or background will be out of focus. So shoot on a tripod, always.
Shooting on a tripod has another advantage besides taking shutter speed out of the equation. It forces you to slow down and think about the composition. As you look through the viewfinder, it is more likely you will take the time to make adjustments and recompose the shot than if you were firing off a snapshot.
While you can get a good landscape shot with a longer lens, to get those sweeping vistas, you need something on the wide end, preferably a prime lens. How wide will depend on the scene. Ideally, something wider than 50mm. 24mm and 35mm are popular choices, but some photographers like to go wider. Don’t go too wide as you should avoid the fisheye look unless that is the look you want. And of course, primes will give you sharper images than zoom lenses.
Finding a beautiful landscape is only half of the battle. Capturing it correctly requires the proper techniques and equipment. Use these three tips the next time you go out to shoot landscapes and see how much better they can be.