Wait for the right lighting. Now, I'm not necessarily talking about shooting at the "golden hour". While that's often a great choice, the "right" lighting is often dictated by the setting. If your scene includes rocky cliffs, for instance, there will be a time of day when the angle of the sun best brings out the texture in those cliffs. A wide meadow might benefit from the soft, diffuse lighting of a cloudy day. Early morning light can help enhance the purple silhouettes of distant mountains.
Even the harsh light of the midday sun can create incredible displays deep in the forest. A little patience might make the difference in a flat, lifeless image and a masterpiece. Relax. Have a sandwich. Wait for it.
Vary the point of view. When was the last time you lay down and looked at a scene? How about walking to the top of a nearby rise? Viewing things from a "normal" perspective is fine, but a different view may offer greater depth, show more interesting textures, or change the emphasis of the shot.
Before you take another shot of that bridge, see what view is like from below it. Instead of trying to figure out how to get those rocks on the lake shore out of the shot, collapse the legs of your tripod and make them the foreground features. What does the forest look like from that ant's point of view? Would that waterfall be more interesting from the top of canyon?
Always look for new ways to view a scene. Shoot several. You'll be glad you did.
Move and level the horizon. This is somewhat related to number two, but it's often more a matter of camera angle than point of view. Once you've determined the point of view for your shot, make sure your horizon isn't across the center of your image. Nothing kills depth in an image like a centered horizon.
This may be a good time to invoke the Rule of Thirds, but don't be afraid to throw it out. A very low horizon can enhance a dramatic sky or add unusual impact to distant mountains. A higher horizon can add depth to shots that might otherwise look flat.
Finally, once you've found the right location for the horizon, make sure it's level, even if your shot is angled. There are times to break this rule, too, but for most landscape shots, a tilted horizon is distracting. This is one of the best reasons to use the grid on your camera's LCD display.
Always have a focal point. Even the most amazing scene is going to be less than spectacular without a point of focus. I'm talking more about mental focus here than lens focus, although there's a relationship when you're dealing with depth of field. That, however, isn't the focus (pun intended) of this article.
The point is, one of the things that breathes life into a photograph is something that draws the viewer's eye. You're looking for that patch of red flowers in the green meadow. The bird on the wire. The patch of light on the water. The sunset. Find something in the scene that draws you, and then frame it in your scene so that it becomes the center of attention. The Rule of Thirds is your best friend in this.
Find and use the lines in the landscape. This is probably a complex enough subject for a complete tutorial, but it's so crucial to the creative process that it needs to be on your mind every time you set up a shot.
Lines exist in everything you see. In your landscape shots, they might be the edges of a road, the ocean shoreline, waves, hills, valleys, corn rows, fences, clouds, or any of a thousand other things. As you're setting up a shot, look for lines that can be used to reinforce the composition of your shot and lead the viewer to the focal point mentioned above. Spot the lines first, and then find creative ways to use them.
Expose for the highlights. One of the most common problems in everyday landscape photos is blown out highlights, resulting in a complete loss of detail. This can be hard to avoid in some situations, for instance, when shooting into the sun. To avoid or at least minimize the problem, you need to tell the camera to render these lighter areas correctly.
While there are different and more complex methods involving spot metering, etc. one of the simplest methods is to use the exposure lock on your DSLR. Center the lightest portion (DO NOT USE THE SUN!) of the scene in your viewfinder or display and activate the exposure lock. Reframe the scene and take the photo with the exposure setting locked.
This method will tone down the highlights and provide better detail in those areas. In all but extreme cases, you'll be able to bring up the details in the shadow areas in post processing. Bracketing your exposures in conjunction with this method will help assure you of an image with the right balance of exposure.
Landscape photography can be one of the most rewarding and relaxing pastimes or career choices. What could possibly be better than spending time recording the natural beauty of the great outdoors and sharing it with others? You get fresh air, exercise, beautiful views and you don't have to work with cranky babies, pampered models, rowdy pets or Bridezillas.
It's also one of the most difficult areas of photography to master. Unless you find ways to make your shots special, you're just another tourist with a fancy camera. Not everyone can be an Ansel Adams, but even the most casual hobbyist can take his or her images to the next level with a few simple changes.
Putting it all together
These six simple steps will make a marked difference in your landscape photos almost immediately. Best of all, they're easily learned and with a little practice will become second nature. From that point, who knows? Maybe you're the next Ansel Adams, after all!
Article by Dana Crandell