Everybody loves to shoot landscapes. And most of the time, everybody is disappointed in the results. This article addresses some of the problems in shooting landscapes and suggests some techniques to help. At the risk of repeating information which appears in a number of other articles, this article will cover finding locations, characteristics of good landscape shots, choice of lenses, use of tripods, and exposure issues.
I’ll confess. I am guilty of the truly awful landscape picture below. I don’t usually keep stuff this bad, but here it is:
Liard River, Yukon Territory
Above is regrettably typical of landscapes taken every day by the well-meaning. It has everything wrong with it. Here’s the list of atrocities:
- Foreground very prominent, but the tops of trees are NOT interesting. There is no other subject of interest.
- Background way too hazy to have significant detail
- Far too much sky, and it’s not even an interesting sky.
- The Liard River, supposedly the subject, is basically invisible
- Straight line composition with no variation to make it interesting – just layers stacked atop one another.
- Color adds no value to the photo and in fact makes bad composition worse.
Northern Montana dust cloud
Here are two other landscapes featuring “plenty of nothing,” but oh, how different they are in character and quality from the embarrassment of Figure 6-1. Figure 6-2, above. Depicts a truck traveling through North Central Montana. This image
conveys the sense of vastness, but in this case there’s a speeding pick-em-up truck, with a nice leading line and a serpentine dust cloud adding to the sense of action and wide-open space. Note that the horizon is well above the center of the picture; we’re interested in what’s happening on the ground. Moving the horizon line makes a huge difference in what the picture communicates! A graduated density filter would have put the sky into better balance with the rest of the image.
Action isn’t required, but composition is. Here’s another shot from the same part of the world (Actually, North Dakota):
North Dakota Hayfield
In this case, contrasty late-afternoon light creates depth-producing shadows. The sensation of depth is enhanced by the S-shaped waterway snaking into the background, carrying the eye with it. The diminishing size of the hay bales also helps create perspective. In addition, the horizon line is set appropriately. The hay bales are the subject of interest, and they sit parallel to the green-to-gold break line so they work to enhance the sense of depth instead of fighting it.
So far we’ve seen one crummy landscape and two good ones. All three are in a panoramic format, but that works well for some landscapes and less well for others.
What do you want to achieve in a landscape photo? Above all, you want to achieve an honest sense of the place you’re looking at. I’m not going to define honest – that’s a very complicated matter when you’re talking about photography—but I’m going let you wrestle with it on your own. But for now “honest” means being faithful to what’s actually there and to the atmosphere or spirit you sense while you are there.
To achieve that impression of honesty you need the things every photo needs: a subject of interest, lighting that enhances the story, effective use of color, the right perspective, well-organized composition, and a sense of depth.
One of the main differences between the first photo and the better ones is a huge difference in the sense of depth. Landscape photos, as you have gathered from my comments above, rely heavily on “tricks” of lighting, exposure, and composition to achieve the sense of depth.
Next installment coming soon:
“Subject-of-Interest and Selecting Your Scene”
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