6 tips to help you create your best landscape photographs

Words/Photographs: Tony Eveling

You can’t always predict the weather, and environments can change colour and atmosphere in minutes…we photographers have to be ready and equipped for everything nature throws at us…and the following 6 points will help you plan ahead and deal with situations so that your photography will be the best it can be.

1. Understanding light

understanding light and shadow and how they are inextricably linked to composition is really important.

A composition is an arrangement of light and shadow in the frame.  For every natural light situation there will be an arrangement of that light in the frame that will produce a visually appealing photograph.

However, what a lot of  people say is that the best light for landscape photography is early in the morning or late afternoon.

But this statement is much more wrong than it is right.

The best light for rich warm colours and long, diffused shadows is in the Golden Hours at dawn and dusk, that bit is true.

But where does that leave room for bad weather photography, or cloudy weather, or severe weather photography? What about graphic intense light and shadows?

You personally may prefer the warm colours of dawn or dusk light, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot take a beautiful and compelling landscape photographs in between those times.

As a beginner photographer, try everything and challenge yourself, not just to get up that mountain an hour before dawn, but also to create a compelling composition in your lunch hour in bright sunshine.

As a landscape photographer you just have to engage in your surroundings, understand the quality of light, accept the light that nature has given you and create a composition to make everything blend perfectly.

So you have to choose the best composition for the light. If you do  that then your landscape photograph will look good, and have visual impact regardless of the time of day that it was taken.

At dawn and dusk that will mean a different composition than the same location at midday.

It is the composition that you need to change to create a visually appealing photograph, not the time of day.

For me, my speciality – if I have one – is composition.  I love the challenge of taking a visually appealing photograph of anything at any time of day, just by creating unique and original compositions for that particular scene.

This is an example of how you can take a photograph of a landscape that isn't a golden hour image.
Swanage Bay, UK. As long as the composition is right for the scene, then you will create a visually appealing photograph that will draw the viewer in. What time you take the photo is irrelevant. Outside of the golden hours you will not get those bright and rich colours, but gray can be nice too, I think!

2. Location

For me, there are 2 main aspects to location when it comes to landscape photography, and which one of these that I apply to my photography will depend on my circumstances at the time, my mood and what I am trying to achieve.

  • The first involves planning your location, knowing where you want to photograph, understanding the weather for that area, having a composition, or some compositions in mind, as well as knowing how to get there, how long the journey will be. Basically, planning ahead, with a set of specific compositions in mind before you set off.

This takes time, which you may not have if you can’t dedicate your life to photography.

  • The second involves just going out with your camera with no pre planning. Explore an area and allow compositions to pop out at you.

With the second aspect, try to resist taking a photo until you have that ‘moment of inspiration’, that means that you are not forcing yourself to take photos.  Try taking photos only when you instinctively say to yourself…

I bet that will make a good photograph

With the second aspect you can do  anywhere, you can go outside now and try it, or you can be walking the dog, or you can wait until you are on top of that mountain.

Does location matter in the second aspect?  Not in terms of planning ahead, but you have to want to be there, and you have to engage with the environment.  If you don’t feel inspired, then you won’t get the most out of your photography.

This is a photograph of a misty forest that I stumbled upon during a cycle ride. Choose your location carefully, or choose it randomly. You will find photos.
We’ve all seen those stunning pre-planned photographs up mountains and along coastlines and so on…but you don’t have to pre plan like that. With this photo I was out cycling about 10 in the morning and found this spot. This was just an opportunist moment that could happen to anyone. You could be going for a walk in your favourite local place. There are photos in all locations at all times of day.

3. Patience and timing

Don’t stress too much if compositions are not jumping out at you when you are out taking photos.

If you don’t get that photo today, you will get it tomorrow.

Photography is a catalog of missed opportunities, and that is a good thing because you learn from those missed opportunities, so don’t be too angry, irritated or frustrated when the weather ‘misbehaves’, or something doesn’t happen that you wanted to happen.

You only have minutes to photograph morning mist like this. Be patient and get there early.
Dawn shot across Wallachia province in Romania. Morning mist like this only lasts for minutes and is constantly changing shape and thickness. Get there early and be patient. Don’t expect everything to go your way either. Remember, there is always next time.

If you do have pre-planned a location, get there as early as possible and wait – getting there a bit to early will help to  get ready, prepare and  de-stress.

If the sky is duller than you expected, and you’re not getting that deep red that you wanted, don’t worry, the art of being creative is to create a composition that suits the environment at the time.

Always think positively.  Just because the sky is gray it doesn’t meant that there isn’t a good composition that would capture that scene in some visually impressive and compelling way. Explore alternative compositions, be flexible.

When the weather doesn’t behave itself, just dip into your armoury of composition skills and choices, and adjust your expectations from your photoshoot.

4. Be lazy. Be unique.

There is nothing wrong with copying somebody else’s composition, and if you are not doing it, then you should.

Many of those drop dead gorgeous dawn and dusk shots actually use the same composition, they are just taken at different locations…and actually many are taken at the same location too.

As a photographer you are allowed to copy.

An example of a photographic cliche, and with its rich dawn colours, it is a good example of why we should still be taking cliches.
Croatia coastline at dawn. Let’s be honest, however much visual impact this has, it is most definitely not original. This is a composition that has been taken millions of times before. But should that stop me from doing the same when I get the opportunity? Nope!

The more you do this, the more you will learn.

However, at the same time – and as you learn the craft – try to be as original as you can. By original I mean use you gut instincts and use intuition.  Don’t forget to try different angles.  Grab those cliches’s, feel the satisfaction of getting them in the bag, then relax, and go off and create something unique to you.

If you are going to the top of a mountain, and it’s taken a lot of preparation to get there, then you will be in a place that relatively few people get to, even though over time many photographs of the area may have been published.

However, don’t be shy to take ‘cliched’ photos or compositions. Why? Well,cliches are called ‘cliches’ for a reason, and that reason is that everyone else wants to take them.

Everyone else takes them because we all love to look at them.

Just don’t forget to be unique too. Do the wandering around thing to see if compositions present themselves to you. They should do if you are tuned into your environment.

An example of a more original photograph, taken at the same location as the photo above, it uses a completely different lens and composition.
Croatian coastline at dawn. Once you’ve taken those ‘cliche’s’ , you can then relax a bit and try and take something unique to you and what catches your eye.

5. Carry a tripod

Even in this day and age of high ISO’s a tripod is still needed.

It’s surprising how dark a forest can be, even at midday, and although you can increase the ISO, you do still introduce noise, especially if you are using a DSLR at the budget end.

Also, if you want to capture motion in your shots then you will need slow shutter speeds, and that will require a tripod.

As for camera tripods, well, I can only speak for myself, and I use Manfrotto tripods, and I use a tripod from their 190 range, and a tripod from their 055 range, and they have given excellent use for about 15 years now.

What about a travel tripod?  Well, in the past I’ve taken my Manfrotto 190Pro with me on my bike when I went cycle touring across Africa which was fine, but would have been a bit cumbersome in a backpack.

Those bendy and flexible Gorilla tripods are really handy too, and I carry one around with me whenever I go out.

Dorset beach at dusk. This image is an example of motion blur in an image, and for this image that meant using a 30 second exposure in order to removes all waves and ripples from the surface. You can only do this by using a tripod.
Dorset beach at dusk. As you can see in this image, the sea is very flat, and that is due to the 30 second exposure that removes all waves and ripples from the surface. You can only do this by using a tripod. Although I use my tripod less now than I used to, it is still an essential piece of equipment.

6. Depth of field

Don’t forget your depth of field.

Put simply  depth of field is the amount of foreground, midground and background that is in focus around the original object that you focused on.

Depth of field is controlled by the photographer via the aperture and it’s ‘strength’ is affected by the focal length of your lens.

Wide depth of field: Smaller aperture sizes increase the amount of near and far that’s in focus and on those wide angle sweeping vistas this is what you will probably want.

Shallow depth of field: Increase the size of the aperture to reduce the amount that’s in focus. Wide apertures is how you get an in focus foreground, and an out of focus background.

Any more detail than that and I would need to write a complete post just on depth of field.  So I’ll stop there for now, but just remember to keep an eye on your aperture size when taking photographs of landscapes.

If in doubt, take the shot.  It’s better to make mistakes that you can learn from than not take the photo.

This is a photo od a daisy and the photo is an example of narrow depth of field where the near and far areas in the photo are out of focus.
This is a photo of a daisy where the aperture was set at about f4.0, and then I used a 200mm lens. The wide open aperture and long lens combined to create a very narrow depth of field. Had I used a smaller aperture the near and far areas would have been less blurry. Had I used a smaller aperture and a wide angle lens (lets say 20mm) , then much more of the image near to far, would have been in focus.
 

Conclusion

Well, that’s my little list of things that I wanted to write about today.  Along the way I realised that I wanted to say more, but that will have to wait until another day.

Please tell me what you think about the above list, do you agree or disagree.  What other aspects of landscape photography should a beginner be thinking about when learning the craft?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments…

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