There are many aspects to taking amazing landscape photos, but two key fundamentals play a part in every photograph. The first fundamental is proper lighting. Ambient or natural light is usually the only light source in a landscape photo. If you are attempting to have something in the foreground, a flash or preferably a reflector will help balance all the aspects of the photograph.
Determining the balance of light may be the trickiest part of not just landscape photography, but all other forms as well. Experimenting with different types of lighting can provide many great results from the same subject. For instance, take a look at the photo on the left. Notice how the sun beaming through the clouds light the dock and make it a foreground object, yet the city skyline still remains the center of the picture. This was accomplished by metering the light for the darker part of the background off to the left of the frame, instead of the lighter spot in the right. By doing this, the sun beams are now going to stand out much more and become an object in the picture as opposed to a washout spot in the photograph. If the light was metered from the light spot of the dock, the background would have been completely washed out as a result.
If your camera does not have the ability to spot meter, focus your lens off the intended subject so the meter will read the light from a darker source. Then keeping those settings move the subject back in to frame and take the photo. This will take a little experimenting to get right, but that is half the fun of photography. The results will be different every time and you never know which image will be the favorite. Many times it is the unconventional methods that turn out the best.
The next fundamental is simple, yet if done incorrectly results in a mediocre photograph. Every landscape photo should be taken with keeping in mind the 3 line, or 3 plane rule. This rule states a photograph should be taken on three different planes. The names of these planes or lines may vary, but they all mean the same thing. This is important because our eyes are naturally drawn to symmetrical objects. Things that are crooked or slightly askew are immediately noticed because they seem out of place.
For example, imagine you are in an art gallery contemplating the significance of life in watercolors and you come across a picture that is slightly crooked on the wall. Next to all of the other perfectly level pictures, this one is going to stand out. Not because is a great work of art, but because it is crooked and driving you crazy. Keep this idea of symmetry in mind when photographing landscapes.
The first plane is the horizon line. This is the upper portion or horizon, of the photograph. The horizon line provides depth to the photograph as it acts as the background of the photo. For instance the photo on the right is easy to look at and your eyes are immediately drawn to the center of the image. Now, look at the second image where the boat is the top of the frame instead of the tree line. The second photo is not bad and still remains rich with clarity, but which image is easier to look at?Nikon D600 | Nikon D7100 | Nikon D800 | Canon 5D Mark III | Nikon D5200 | Canon 1D X
The second plane is the subject line. This is the main portion of the photograph which draws the attention of the eye. In the image above, the boat and its reflection provide the subject for the frame. It is evenly centered in the photo and easy on the eyes. Not every subject must be evenly centered as long as the 3 planes still remain in the frame.
The third plane is the bottom line. This line separates the subject from the bottom of the frame resulting in a well-constructed photograph. If the bottom line is left out and the subject fills the whole bottom portion of the frame, the image will lose some of its appeal. Again, this does not mean the photograph would be bad and not worth taking. The image on the left would still be filled with color and life if the seagulls were at the bottom of the frame. However, by placing them in the middle and leaving the space underneath them, it turns a good photo into a great one.
Not every photograph needs to be the same and these two simple rules can be bent, or even broken to create unique images. Experimenting with different aspects of photography has led to some of the greatest images in history. The fundamentals are however important not just to landscape photography, but all forms.
By Dave Young
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- The Landscape Photography Workshop