Landscape photography is one of the most popular genres with enthusiasts, but did you know it’s also one of the hardest to work in successfully? A lot depends on the light and weather and it also helps if you have access to beautiful or dramatic landscapes.
But if that sounds a little disheartening then please don’t despair – there are plenty of things you can do to help you take better landscape photos. Let’s take a look at them.
Landscape photos need beautiful light
Most photographers are aware that landscape photography requires beautiful light. That means being on location either early in the morning or late in the evening to capture the raking light of golden hour.
The results are always worth it. I made the photo below around sunset. The mountains and clouds have caught the golden glow of the fading light – you only get landscape photos like this by turning up at the right time.
After sunset is another productive time for landscape photography, especially if there’s a colorful sunset and you’re photographing a large body of water like the sea or a lake. The water reflects the light and colors in the sky, creating dramatic landscape photos. Artificial lighting, if present, adds to the atmosphere.
Landscape photography and bad weather
Sunny days create a predictable and often fruitful type of light for landscape photography, especially if you’re on location during the golden hour. But the dramatic light created by bad weather is often more exciting.
By its nature the light created by bad weather doesn’t last long and is difficult to capture. You have to act quickly and take appropriate precautions to protect you and your gear from the elements.
Sometimes you can create better landscape photos in cloudy weather or even when it’s raining. The soft even lighting of a cloudy day is perfect for revealing textures and hidden details in photos of forests and waterfalls.
I made the photo below in New Zealand’s Milford Sound. This area receives a lot of rain and shooting in these conditions captured the gloomy atmosphere and waterfalls that cascade down the steep cliffs when it’s raining.
Cloudy days are also idea for practicing long exposure photography. Clouds and water become streaked and blurred by the long exposure, helping you create surreal images that look very different from those taken in sunlight.
Always remember that if the light isn’t good enough when you’re on location your only option is to return when it’s better. That’s the nature of landscape photography and something we just have to deal with.
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Give your landscape photos dramatic focal points
There are lots of ways of composing landscape photos, so this is a generalization, but it helps if you give the photo a strong focal point that becomes the center of the composition.
For example, the yellow boat is the main focal point of the landscape photo below. I emphasized this by moving in close and simplifying. This helped eliminate distractions and create a stronger composition.
Make better landscape photos by adding foreground interest
So you’re on location, the light’s beautiful and you’ve figured out what to make your main focal point. The next step is to find something to guide the eye through the frame.
A good technique is to include foreground interest – something interesting in the lower third of the photo that guides the eye through the frame to the main subject. It’s even more effective if you can use line.
This landscape photo is a good example – the sandy beach in the foreground adds depth and gently pushes the eye towards the rocks in the sea.
Make better landscape photos by capturing movement
We’ve touched on this already with the mention of long exposure photography, but one of the interesting things about landscape photography is that you can use slow shutter speeds to capture movement in various ways.
These two photos show how it works. I made the first (left) with a shutter speed of 2/3 second. It’s slow enough to blur the water, creating a sense of movement and energy.
I made the second (right) with a shutter speed of 250 seconds (and the assistance of a neutral density filter). This much longer shutter speed has smoothed out the water and clouds, removing texture and energy from the scene, giving it a more peaceful feel.
Shutter speed, and the way it renders movement, is an important tool for the landscape photographer to master.
Find a muse
One of the most effective ways to put together a portfolio of stunning landscape photos is live in an area with lots of beautiful and dramatic landscapes. The obvious advantage of this is that it gives you the opportunity to photograph the changing landscape over the seasons and the years. You can make up for the times when the light isn’t beautiful by returning when it is.
Local knowledge is a tremendous advantage in terms of understanding where the sun rises and sets and what angle the light comes from at different times of the year. You’re also far more likely to have the time to explore and find the unappreciated gems that visitors miss.
Landscape photographers like to travel, and once again it helps if you visit the same regions several times over the years, perhaps at different times of the year. You won’t be a local, but it’s the second best thing.
Either way, the idea is to find a muse – a landscape, region or geographical feature that you come back to again and again, photographing in different lighting conditions and with different compositions, building up a body of work.
For example, I used to live five minutes walk away from a beach with a distinctively shaped island. I was able to go and take photos of it any time the light looked suitable. Here are some of the photos I made of that island.