Ask any beginner photographer, and I'd bet they'll say that landscapes are the easiest type of photo to take.
After all, you just need a pretty scene and decent lighting, right?
Like any other type of photo, there's often a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done and rules to follow to get the most pleasing shot.
Sure, you can get lucky sometimes and get a pretty good photo by hopping out of the car and framing up the shot, but those types of photos are few and far between.
The key to unlocking better landscape photos is to know a few fundamental rules and when to break them.
Rule #1: Plan
One of the landscape photography rules that I find gets overlooked most often is to sit down and plan the shoot.
This could be something as simple as mapping out how to get to the place you wish to go.
It could also be a little more involved like checking the weather or the tides, figuring out the position of the sun at certain times of day, or scoping out vantage points from which you can take a good photo.
The point is that if you want to replicate the incredible photos you see online and in magazines, be willing to spend some time beforehand planning things out.
Suggested Planning Method: Use Google Maps to plan your route, identify parking areas, and even find possible vantage points. Often, Google maps will supply a sample image of the view from that spot, as seen below. Simply click on that image to get an array of other images tagged from that area.
There are other steps you can take when planning your landscape photography journey. Check those out in this detailed guide.
Of course, all the planning in the world doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get a fantastic shot.
That means you need to be willing to call an audible when things aren't going as planned.
Perhaps you get to your destination, and the weather is obscuring the subject.
Maybe you get caught in traffic or road construction, and you miss your chance to get a good shot in the morning or evening at Golden Hour.
Things will go wrong - and that's when you need to be willing to break the rules.
What's more, opportunities will come along for you to take those rare impromptu shots that end up being every bit as good as the thoroughly planned ones. Don't get tunnel vision - ditch your plan when the occasion calls for it!
Rule #2: Have a Backup Plan
As noted above, having a Plan B is a good idea given that all sorts of things could hamper your initial plan.
But I'd argue that you need to have a couple of backup plans because you never know when the conditions or the timing or some other factor will render your first couple of plans useless.
Part of having a backup plan is certainly planning. Though it might not be as fun to spend twice or three times as much time in the planning stages of your trip, it can pay dividends when you get there because you'll have scouted multiple locations to get great photos.
Really, it's all about flexibility and being willing to deviate from your ideal plan and reroute yourself when needed.
Having said that, there is something to be said for sticking to your guns and waiting things out.
I don't know how many times I've been holed up in my car during a thunderstorm, wondering if I should take off for my alternate shoot location, only to find just a few minutes later that the storm ends and I'm left with a sparkling landscape and gorgeous light streaming in under the clouds.
Planning is essential, and so too is having a backup plan. Just don't be too quick on the trigger to ditch your initial plan.
Rule #3: Use Filters
If you look at a beautiful landscape photo online, the chances are pretty good that the photographer used a filter to get the photo as close to perfect as possible in the field.
Whether it's using a polarizer to minimize glare off of water, a neutral density filter to extend your exposure times (as seen above), a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure between bright skies and dark landscapes, or a reverse graduated neutral density filter to get better exposures at sunrise and sunset, filters have plenty of benefits that can make your photos look fantastic. Learn more about filters in this quick guide.
However, there are some situations in which filters can hamper the image.
For example, though a graduated neutral density filter is great for shots with a very defined horizon (like looking out at the ocean from the beach), they aren't so effective when the horizon isn't as defined (like a mountain scene).
In that instance, it would be better to take multiple exposures and blend them together in Photoshop as explained in the video above by Jimmy McIntyre.
The result of doing so will get you a much more pleasing image that's got a better exposure than if you tried to use a filter.
So, start out by using filters, but when the situation is too difficult for filters, opt instead to break the rule and use the exposure blending technique.
Rule #4: Go Wide-Angle
If you were to poll landscape photographers, a healthy margin would say that their go-to landscape photography lens is a wide-angle.
It makes sense, too...
You want to capture as much of the large, sweeping landscape before you, and a wide-angle lens allows you to do just that.
What's more, a wide-angle lens helps give a greater sense of depth to the scene.
Though your wide-angle lens might be the lens that's attached to your camera body when you leave the house, that doesn't mean you can't shoot landscapes with other lenses.
A standard lens, like a 50mm prime, can get you great photos whether you shoot on a full frame or crop sensor camera.
There's something to be said for photographing landscapes with a telephoto lens, too. Namely, you can compress the distance between you and the subject, making it appear larger.
That's beneficial when you want to give the shot greater scale. There are other benefits too, as outlined in the video above by Doug McKinlay from AdoramaTV.
The point is that everyone shoots landscapes with a wide-angle lens. Far fewer opt to use a standard or a telephoto lens. If you want to create unique landscapes that offer a different perspective, break the rules and shoot with a different lens.
Rule #5: Find the Best Vantage Point
As I mentioned earlier, when planning your landscape photography outing, be sure to scout the best locations to get the best shots.
This is often the "postcard shot" that you'll see in magazines and online, and will be where you find many other photographers seeking to get a similar photo.
There's certainly nothing wrong with attempting to replicate a postcard shot because, after all, it is usually taken from the best spot possible.
However, just because the rule is to find the best vantage point doesn't mean that you should only take photos from that one spot.
In fact, you might find that moving just a few dozen feet to the left or the right gets you an equally impressive shot (and without all the crowds of photographers too).
If you arrive at your destination and find that the spot you want to shoot from is overrun with other photographers, don't be afraid to get creative, use your feet, and explore the surrounding area. You never know when you stumble on a new perspective of a landscape that ends up being the next "postcard shot" location!
Rule #6: Don't Let Weather Scare You
Having great light and great weather for landscape photography is obviously something most of us wish to have.
But sometimes, the weather just doesn't cooperate, and you're left with an important choice - change your plans or stick it out.
I'm an advocate for using weather as an element to add drama to a photograph, like the one seen above.
Granted, fog is a pretty non-descript type of weather event - you likely don't face much danger shooting in such conditions. Get a few tips for working in other interesting weather conditions in the video below by Practical Photography Magazine:
But other weather events, like thunderstorms, lightning, and tornados, can cause you (and your gear) great harm.
That's when you need to break the rule and actually be afraid of the weather!
Shots of lightning and tornados are certainly breathtaking and eye-catching, but not at the risk of injury to life and limb.
Don't wait until the point at which you're in danger. Keep a close eye on the weather and seek shelter before things get out of hand.
Rule #7: Use the Rule of Thirds
Every beginning landscape photographer should know and understand the rule of thirds.
In the image above, the rule of thirds helped in placing the aurora borealis along an imaginary horizontal gridline about one-third down from the top of the frame.
That puts the focal point of the image in a prime spot in the shot for maximum impact.
Not only does the rule of thirds aid in composing a more balanced and interesting shot, but it also helps you position the horizon line.
For example, if the foreground has a lot of interest, you can align the horizon with the topmost horizontal gridline. Conversely, if the sky has a lot of interest, you can align the horizon with the bottommost horizontal gridline.
In fact, by and large, the rule of thirds will be a beneficial tool to use in most landscape situations.
However, there's opportunities for creating gorgeous photos when breaking this rule as well.
Notice in the image above how the primary subject - the bridge - is smack in the middle of the frame, which is a direct violation of the rule of thirds. Also notice how the horizon line is along the horizontal midline of the shot - again, breaking the rule.
But the photo is nonetheless impactful.
Breaking the rule of thirds when there's a reflection is often the way to go. That's because by placing the subject in the middle of the frame, you maximize the symmetry of the shot, and that's quite pleasing to the eye.
Yes, the rule of thirds will work great in most situations, but don't be afraid to dump the rule when the mood strikes.
Rule #8: Less is More
The inclination of many landscape photographers is to try to include absolutely every detail they can into the shot.
The problem with this approach is that the resulting image can often look and feel a little overwhelming. The more "stuff" there is for the eye to inspect, the more chaotic the scene can feel.
When photographing landscapes, strive to have a single, strong subject that immediately grabs the viewer's attention.
Also include supporting elements that help give prominence to the subject.
For example, the primary subject in the shot above is the bluff in the background, but the dirt road extending toward it acts as the ideal supporting detail because it directs the eye right toward the bluff. Note how there aren't any other strong elements to cause the scene to appear chaotic.
There are times when you can break this rule, though.
Some landscapes inherently have a lot of detail, so the question is how to tone those details down.
A great way is to convert the image to black and white.
Often, color information is what can be a little overwhelming, especially in the presence of a lot of other details in the shot.
By removing that color, you immediately simplify the scene and make it less chaotic to view. Learn how to convert an image to a dark, gloomy black and white photo in the video above by YuriFineArt.
Rule #9: Go Back Over and Over
Each time you visit a landscape, it will be slightly different. The lighting will change, the colors of the season will change, and the weather will present you with different obstacles (and opportunities!).
But each of those differences means that the landscape offers you new opportunities to create a gorgeous shot.
That's true whether you go back at different times of the day or go back at different times of the year.
Where the landscape might look really good in the summertime, it might be breathtaking in the winter.
Where a daytime shot might look pretty good, at Golden Hour, it might be incredible.
Granted, it isn't always possible to hang out in one spot all day, nor is it always doable to revisit the same location several times a year. However, if you can, make it a rule to keep going back over and over again.
Just don't let your pursuit of one location hinder your ability to venture elsewhere!