4 Tips for Improving Your Landscape Photography Right Now
If I were a betting man, I'd say that landscape photography is the genre most photographers rank as their first love.
I'm certainly part of those ranks...
There's nothing like getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, heading outdoors, and taking in some beautiful scenery (and taking some beautiful pictures of that scenery too).
But it's not just the scenery that draws people to landscape photography.
If you ask me, I think it's one of the most accessible types of photography.
Think about it...you have a subject that's ready to go, and in most cases, free to access.
You can use any camera to photograph landscapes, from your mobile device to a medium format camera and beyond.
You can also use any lens, from a wide-angle to a telephoto, and get good results.
Besides, if you find that your shots just aren't cutting it, there's plenty of things you can do to improve your landscape photography.
Let's review a few essential tips for doing just that.
An ND Grad Filter Isn't Always Helpful
In many cases, a graduated neutral density filter helps you solve difficulties with dynamic range.
That is, when you encounter situations in which the foreground landscape is very dark and the sky is very bright, an ND grad will help even that out by filtering out some of the brightness of the sky.
That means you can get a better exposure right then and there and not have to mess around with post-processing techniques to balance the exposure.
However, an ND grad isn't always the answer.
For example, what happens when there are objects in the shot that protrude above the horizon and into the sky, like a tree or a mountain?
Even with a soft-edge ND grad, you won't be able to deal with the differences in exposure between those landscape elements and the sky because those treetops and mountaintops will fall into the darkened upper portion of the filter, resulting in a well-exposed sky, a well-exposed landscape, and extremely dark treetops and mountaintops.
The Solution: In this case, post-processing becomes your friend.
All you have to do is take two shots - one that's exposed for the brightness of the sky, and another that's exactly the same compositionally, but which is exposed for the darker landscape.
Then, open both images in your post-processing program (each on its own layer), and use the layer mask function to paint over the areas in each photo that are well-exposed. See how it's done in the video above by Brendan van Son.
Give Viewers a Unique Perspective
I know when I approach a new landscape - especially if it's something iconic like the vistas of Joshua Tree or the waterfalls of Yosemite - that I immediately go for the "postcard shot."
You know - the one that everyone else takes.
It's natural to want to see those well-known features of a landscape, and it's equally as natural to want to photograph them as you've seen them photographed by the greats like Ansel Adams.
But there is something to be said for unique perspectives.
The question is, how do you create your own take on oft-photographed landscapes?
The Solution: Rather than merely trying to replicate what other photographers have done, you can immediately improve the impact of your landscape photos by simply finding a different vantage point from which to photograph them.
Something as simple as taking a few steps to the left or right, kneeling down, heck - even laying down on the ground - can give you enough of a new perspective and a fresh angle on the scene to make it more compelling.
Get out of the car, venture beyond the scenic overlook (but do so safely!), and just take some time to think about how you will compose the shot. You might even just use a different lens to find a more unique take on the landscape.
If you do that, you'll find that your photos have more depth to them, more meaning, and have a unique way of portraying even the most popular landscape subjects.
Be a Rule Breaker
I'm willing to bet that if I were to ask you what the most important rule of photography composition is that you'd be able to answer that question...
The rule of thirds, right?
If you've been interested in photography for any length of time, you likely know the rule of thirds backwards and forwards. You probably know a bunch of other photography rules right off the top of your head too.
And while learning the basics and understanding how you can make a better photo by following such rules, sometimes, they hinder the success of your photo, not help it.
The Solution: Become a rule-breaker.
The beauty of photography is that it is a personal, subjective artform. That means you can do with your photos what you want!
Sure, following the rules helps you learn how to take a more impactful photo, but once you've learned the rules, practiced them, and developed an understanding of why they work, you can then start to make your own decisions about what looks and feels right.
The point is that if every single landscape photo you take strictly adheres to the rule of thirds, every single landscape photo you take will have a similar look and feel.
If you ask me, that's a little boring!
Instead, let the landscape speak to you and help you dictate how you frame each shot in a unique manner.
Not only will your photos become more varied and interesting, but you'll also develop improved compositional chops that will serve you well as you continue developing as a landscape photographer.
Landscapes Aren't Just About Land
This seems like a real "duh" moment...
Obviously, landscapes are more than about land.
The problem is, if you look at a lot of landscape photos from amateur and even enthusiast photographers, there's a problem that immediately comes to light.
Some photos simply focus too much on the land.
One of the rules of landscapes is to include foreground interest in the shot.
Doing so helps draw the eye into the scene and helps give the image a feeling of more depth.
But including foreground details just for the sake of doing so doesn't do you any favors...
In fact, if the foreground of the shot is boring, it needs to be omitted.
The Solution: If you find that the foreground of the shot just isn't doing it for you, shift the horizon lower so you can highlight the color and brightness of the sky.
This trick works great for sunrises and sunsets when the sky is at its most dramatic.
But it also works when the weather is a factor - storm clouds add much more drama than most foreground elements ever could!
Another option when the skies aren't that interesting is to find a way to incorporate water.
Having water in the foreground can act as a great area of foreground interest, and it gets you away from only including land in your landscape photos.
In fact, water reflection shots have a beautiful symmetry about them that viewers often find quite engaging.
The point is that just like finding a unique perspective will help change the look and feel of your images, so too will incorporating different aspects of the landscape.
Worry less about including landforms in the foreground to act as interest and more about framing the shot such that you maximize its impact. Sometimes that will mean having more sky in the shot. Other times that will mean adding bodies of water.
If you can keep those things in mind (and the other tips outlined above), you'll be in a good position to start creating better landscape photos right now, today.
That's not a bad deal, right?