How to Take Better Landscape Photos
How do you take better landscape photographs? Every photography website has an article like this. Landscape photography is something that thrills people, and websites love to jump on that demand. However you found this article, chances are good that it's not the first landscape tutorial you've read. This is why I'm going to make this the most useful landscape tutorial you've ever read by going beyond the traditional advice.
Ok, duh. Learn composition. The thing is, if you've read my composition overview, you'll know that you can't learn composition. It's something that can be improved over time, and there are really only two ways to do so: taking thousands of photos and ruthlessly deciding which work well, or getting guidance from others. Both take time, but you already knew that.
No one else can help you take thousands of photos, but there are a plethora of ways to seek out composition information from others. One of the best is to look through the landscape photos that people post on Fred Miranda's website. With few exceptions, the people who post in the landscape forum are amazing, and the suggestions that commenters offer are legitimately helpful.
You'll know an amazing photo on FredMiranda when you see one (which will probably happen pretty often). Sometimes, people showcase several photos in one post, and the commenters will say which one they like best. Often, there is a near-unanimous consensus as to which photo works more than the others. Remember that these photos typically are taken by the same person, at the same location, on the same day. All that differs is the composition.
Find which FredMiranda photos you like, and make a mental note of them. You could consider thinking about why those photos appeal to you, although that isn't even necessary. Subconsciously, after you've studied hundreds of these stunning photos (and really study the ones that you like), you'll begin to know what constitutes a good composition. The color, the processing, the arrangement of forms. All of these contribute to a photo's composition in ways which cannot be explained in words, but which will be obvious after seeing enough successful attempts.
Also, look for the ones you don't like. There aren't a lot of bad photos posted on FredMiranda, but there are a few each day which are just mediocre. A lot of times, they are technically strong photos but their impact just isn't there. You'll know them when you see them, and they'll probably remind you of some of your own average photos. Typically, these photos are average because either their subject is boring or their lighting is boring. By making a note of which photos don't work, you'll begin to see which of your own photos don't work.
As you would expect, when you're photographing on your own, the compositions you've seen on FredMiranda will subtly influence your photography. Especially if you are in a gorgeous location, you'll begin to realize which compositions will be bland and which will be stunning before you even take them. Then, once you've taken thousands of photos on your own, you will become far better at realizing which ones work and which do not. You'll know subconsciously how your photos stack up to some on FredMiranda, and you can perhaps even post them on the site yourself for feedback.
Also (I have to say it), you can learn how to improve your composition by reading the articles on spencercoxphoto.com! My article on balance should help you gain a foothold learning one of the more complex, unwritten tenants of composition. Also, my "photo talk" articles are helpful because they go in-depth on what makes my best photos work well. (The links to the previous "photo talk" articles are as follows: Half Dome Echoes an Elm Tree, Levels, Motion, Dawn in Yosemite, Half Dome Sunset, and Beacon.) I also have specific articles on different conditions you may encounter, such as photographing in the fog or photographing lightning. Basically, all my articles other than gear reviews (and sometimes even those, too) contain little tips and tricks that can help your landscape photography. This isn't a huge website yet, so it's easy to explore what I have to offer.
This is arguably the best possible way to get a good landscape photo. Take note! If you're in a gorgeous location, especially if the light isn't changing rapidly, spend time there. Hours, if you can. Even if the light isn't particularly good, stay as long as possible. Practice new compositions, and, most importantly, move around. If you spend an hour in a beautiful location, by the end of that hour you will have a few photos that stand out. Look back through your photos, find the best ones, and go back to the spot that you took them.
Once you're near that spot, try to make them better. In hindsight, you'll probably notice a few things that you can change about the original photo. Would you be able to improve its image quality through focus stacking? Could the composition be stronger if you shift the frame slightly? An hour later, too, the lighting will be different. This could be good or bad, but it is a reason that you should stick around somewhere nice even if the light isn't perfect. It will improve!
If you take your time at a beautiful location, you will eventually find the best possible compositions that the area has to offer. When I took the photo at the beginning of this section, I spent three hours photographing within an area of about 150 square feet. It is a beautiful location, and it gave me beautiful results. If I had spent fifteen minutes here and then moved on, I couldn't have taken this shot. (Note that this wasn't the obvious shot, either. I stood on a rock in the middle of this pond to take the photo.)
"But wait!" you exclaim. "I don't have any locations nearby me that are this beautiful, and certainly none that I would want to spend three hours at!"
Well, that's where the next section comes in.
To be honest, I think you should never photograph at a place which does not excite you. For example, there is a stream about ten minutes away from my house which is just generally uninspiring. I've woken up early a dozen times to photograph that stream, and it's never worth it because it just isn't an interesting location. Some people, maybe, can take award-winning landscape pictures anywhere, but not me. That's actually why I started doing macro photography; in some places (like behind my house), the details are the only photogenic things I can find.
However, this is a landscape article, and by golly I'm going to tell you how to take great landscape photos no matter where you are. It's actually very easy: drive! The location where I took the photo above is about a ninety minute drive from my house. In other words, it's short enough that I can drive there and back in a day, still leaving myself hours to enjoy hiking and photography.
If you live somewhere without a single landscape photography location within ninety minutes, you're not looking closely enough. Every state except Delaware has some unit of the National Park System on its soil, and it's a given that National Parks are prime landscape photography locations. And if you live in Delaware and are feeling bad about your luck, look up "Delaware waterfalls" in Google Images and you'll see that there are countless sources of landscape inspiration for you as well.
Do you live in non-photogenic suburbia? Find the closest National Park or waterfall! Do you live in the middle of the Arizona desert? You're extremely lucky, then, because the canyons and rock formations throughout your state are among the best in the world. Where I live, the most photogenic landscapes require a bit of driving, or they necessitate that I incorporate manmade structures in my compositions (which is not necessarily bad, as you can see by the photo in the section below).
If you want great landscape photos, you have to visit great landscapes. And if you want to improve your landscape photography, you need to work with something more than an uninspiring stream five minutes from your house.
Scout it out
Pros get good landscape photographs because they know where the best light hits. Also, they know when the best light hits.
Only a small number of the best landscape photos are taken the first time a photographer sees a location. I know that some people return to the same spot at least once a year, and it's only after the tenth or twelfth visit that they create a true masterpiece.
The photo above is a good example of that. This was my second visit to this location, and I knew that the light would hit this tree perfectly for sunrise. I had scouted this area ahead of time, so I wasn't LOA (Lost On Arrival).
When you spend hours at a location, like I mentioned above, you're subconsciously doing the same thing. Personally, I already have a list of good compositions I want for the next time that I return to the waterfall pond for three hours. I can fix little imperfections that I see in the first frame and probably photograph the falls when lighting and seasonal factors are different. If this waterfall freezes during the winter and I'm still dumb enough to visit it, I have a pre-made composition for a beautiful shot. Same if it's foggy, or if the sunset is magnificent. Basically, for landscape photographers, there is always a best environment to take a given shot.
There are a few tools to help you scout your locations. First, use your own feet and brain. Find a good area, and spend some time walking around in it. You'll find some compositions that will shine in the right light. Second, The Photographer's Ephemeris can help a lot (landscape photographers worldwide swear by TPE, but truthfully I've never used it). This helps you predict where the sun and moon will be in the landscape. Lastly, find some photos that you like online, and go to the spots where they were shot. Your goal isn't to recreate those photos, but to find your own compositions in a landscape that inspired someone to take a photo you like.
Find a great location, and be persistent with it. Lighting changes each day, and, by default, one day will be the best.
This suggestion is dubious, but it will help your photography tremendously if other people can critique it. It's a dubious suggestion because I do mean critique, not praise. In other words, Instagram and Flickr are not good options for critiques. Instead, try FredMiranda, although even that can be more congratulatory than critical. It costs a small amount to be able to upload photos directly to the site (although you can link to outside pages for free), but it can be useful investment for your photos. The people who actually critique photos offer useful advice, generally, and a lot of professionals hang out on that site.
If you don't want to pay to have your photos critiqued, there are a number of other solid options. For instance, send me a message saying that you want a critique! Attach a link to your photo/portfolio, or just ask for my email address and send me them directly. If you do ask for a critique, I will write at least a couple paragraphs explaining what I think about your photo, the good aspects as well as the possible improvements I see. No charge, just to help.
It also helps to have a friend who is completely honest with you about your photos. You want someone who will rank your great photos as a 7.5/10 and your decent photos as a 3/10, because when they give you that one 9.5/10 you know it's legitimate. My friend gave the photo at the top of this page a 7.5/10, and then he turned around and bought a print of it on metal.
If you don't have friend like that, find a photo club or at least another photographer who can discuss your work. If other people look at your photos, it can be very revealing. But if you only ever get positive feedback, you're not looking deep enough.
Here's a non-secret secret: all top landscape photographers edit their photos, and they simply wouldn't be good photos otherwise. Take a look at the original version of this photo:
Post-processing your photos is again a very subjective thing, and not one you can learn overnight. As a beginner, or as an expert, you should focus on color correction, not color enhancement. Notice in the above photo that, although I brought out details in contrast and clarity of the image, I didn't saturate the colors much at all over the original. Instead, I corrected the colors to be more pleasing, and I removed the bizarre green cast of the original.
To edit photos, you need to buy good software. No way around it. Luckily, some of the best photo editing software is not particularly expensive. I used Adobe Lightroom for all the edits on the photo above, and you can find it used (unopened) for about $75, and it's $140 new (but less if you're a student, or if Adobe is running a promotion). Lightroom can take time to master, but almost every setting the software offers is undoable. Basically, you can't mess it up unless you delete things.
Learning post-processing is tricky, and again it helps to see what the experts are doing. One thing that you'll notice consistently on the best FredMiranda landscape photos is that their colors are beautiful, yet normal. If you take a photo of a mountain range at sunrise, viewers will know that it's sunrise because they can see the orange colors. You don't need to exaggerate those colors to make it happen.
Get your post-processing critiqued, too. Good photographers have a ken eye for post-processing, and they can tell you how to pull a great photo from a decent shot, still making the result look natural. FredMiranda is great, and so are any photo clubs you know of. More than anything, the key in post-processing is subtlety.
Here's another key, and one that a lot of experts don't know. If you look at one of your photos for long enough, you can no longer see it with the "first eye" that you had in the beginning. The photo may be tilted, or perhaps the crop is wrong, but you'll never see these issues because you have gotten so used to the photo how it is. So, how do you fix this? Easy! Flip the photo horizontally. That's such a useful technique that I italicized and bolded the entire sentence. I don't need to say anything more; once you flip your favorite photos horizontally, you'll see flaws that you never suspected. Or, you might not see any. Just try it.
Lastly, one of the most important ways to improve your photo quality in Lightroom is with the sharpening command. It's also one of the easiest ways to wreck your image. To start, assuming that you shot the photo at the lowest ISO possible, try keeping your "radius" within a few points of 1.0. Set your detail from 20 to 40, and keep your masking from about 20 to 40 as well. The sharpening value will vary, but for a landscape it's probably best to set it somewhere from 50 to 80. And if your settings are all at their maximums (like, 1.5 radius, 40 detail, 40 masking, and 80 sharpening), your sharpening probably isn't optimal. Remember, too, that you should use noise reduction (between 10 and 20 with average contrast/detail) and color noise reduction (same settings), even if you shot at base ISO.
Sharpening technique is another subject for another article. However, the info above should give you some starting guidance, and you can switch things around from there as need be. Again, subtlety is key.
Aim for Quality
It's better to have an unsharp photo of a stunning subject than a sharp photo of something boring, right? But it's best of all to have a sharp photo of a stunning subject.
Unless you are deliberately aiming for blur, something which is very difficult to master, you want the highest technical quality possible from your landscape photos. If you ever want to sell your landscapes, they need to be printable at huge sizes. Why take a photo of a grand landscape and then be unable to print it larger than 4x6 inches in size?
Technical quality in your landscapes is a difficult subject, and one which will require some supplemental reading on your part. However, I'll list below some ways that you can help out the technical quality of your landscapes.
-Use a tripod. If you want to be unconstrained in your depth of field and shutter speed options, a tripod is an obvious necessity. I wrote an article which might help on choosing the right tripod in the first place. Using a tripod also means that you should use exposure delay or mirror lock-up mode, as well as a self-timer or a remote release.
-Set the right exposure. With digital photography, your goal in exposing a photo is to have as bright a photo as possible so that the highlights in your frame do not turn completely white. Then, dial down the darkness of the photo in your editing program. With few exceptions, any photo of yours that you globally brighten in post-processing was not exposed properly.
-Blend your exposures, sometimes. I worry about mentioning HDR photography because some HDR photos are ridiculously ugly and forgettable. However, it is true that the concept behind HDR is a useful one. To blend photos properly, do the following: Take one photo where the brightest important highlight in the frame is not quite 100% white. Then, take another photo with an extra stop of exposure by doubling the length of the shutter speed. Bring the photos into an editing program, edit each one independently to make the highlights (photo one) and the shadows (photo two) as good as possible. Then manually blend the two photos in an editing program using gradients for the most subtle transition. For the record, doing this overcomplicates a lot of photos. Every single frame on my website at the time of this writing is just a single, unblended exposure.
-Focus stack, sometimes. Again, this is a technique which overcomplicates a lot of photos and can make you spend too much time on each frame. However, if you know that you've got a good shot and you're working from a tripod, focus stacking allows you to gain some sharpness that you would lose to diffraction by setting a very small aperture. (If none of this makes sense, don't worry about it. None of the photos on this site were accomplished with focus stacking.)
-Make a panorama. This is a technique which you should always use if you can. The photo at the top of this section is a panorama from six vertical photos, and as a result its quality is tremendous. I can print this photo six feet wide with no noticeable loss in quality, which is just unbelievable.
-Use the proper filters. If your landscape has a blue sky, water, leaves, or a rainbow, use a polarizer. You can set the polarizer to increase glare (most people don't know that), decrease glare, or make no difference to the scene. But the four scenarios I mentioned above are all affected in some way by a polarizing filter, so you should probably use one. Also, get a neutral-density graduated filter to darken the sky in your photos. As far as expensive filters go, these are still pretty expensive. However, you only need one or two to start, and it's possible to avoid buying an even more expensive filter holder by just holding the filter yourself. I recommend the Lee 0.6 soft or the 0.75 soft filters. Anything darker is usually too obvious; anything weaker and there isn't much point to using it in the first place. I don't recommend grad filters with hard transitions because they are tough to use if the horizon is uneven.
-Shoot in RAW. If your camera has the option, just always shoot in its RAW mode, especially for landscapes. Please. If you currently don't have the software to process RAW photos, shoot in RAW+JPEG mode. Five years from now, when you know how to work with RAW files, you'll thank your past self.
-Remove that clear filter. If you're taking landscape photos and your camera isn't being pelted by mud or dust, remove all extraneous filters. This includes the UV filter that the sales guy convinced you to buy. Even the most expensive UV filters (mine sells for $70) steal quality from your shots. This isn't noticeable in all situations, but in landscapes (especially when the sun could be in your frame), your photos will jump in quality if you remove your UV filter.
-Use your lens hood. I know, they're big and cheap-feeling, but they also increase the contrast of all your photos, no matter what. In most cases, the difference isn't huge. However, if the sun is out (or even if it's not), reflections from the sky will hit the front element of your lens. This, by definition, robs contrast from your photo. Using your lens hood saves the day!
-Focus well. I tend to focus by setting my lens to its widest aperture (f/1.4 or f/2.8 for my lenses), then focusing on something between the foreground and the background. I zoom in using live view and I make sure that my foreground and background, though both out of focus, are equally out of focus. Then I set my aperture to roughly f/11 and take a shot. If I need more depth of field, I'll switch to f/16. If my depth of field is sufficient at f/11, I may try setting the lens to its slightly-sharper aperture of f/8, but that's not particularly important.
-Avoid wind. If you're in a beautiful but windy area and the light isn't changing rapidly, wait a few seconds for the wind to die down before you click. Even if you have the world's sturdiest tripod, a photo taken in the wind will never be sharper than a comparable photo taken when the air is still.
-Make a checklist of everything above. I'm not kidding; feel free to copy, paste, and print out the following list:
1) On a tripod, use exposure delay mode + the self timer or a remote release.
2) Shoot in RAW (preferable) or RAW + JPEG.
3) Remove your clear filter and attach the lens hood.
4) Expose as bright as possible so that the important highlights are near-white. The photo will probably look too bright overall, but you'll darken it later in post-processing.
5) Focus at the lens's widest aperture so that the foreground and background are equally out of focus.
6) Set the aperture to a more appropriate value for your landscape, generally between f/8 and f/16 if you want everything in focus.
7) Attach any filters that you need, probably a polarizer and maybe a neutral-density grad.
8) Make a panorama, a focus stack, or an HDR photo as needed to improve quality. Don't worry about doing this for all your photos, though. If you need to use one of these methods, you'll know.
9) Wait for the wind to settle.
10) Snap away! Once you've gotten your shot, move on in search of better targets. Send the finalized photos to spencercoxphoto.com for critique!
Thanks for reading this article! I certainly hope that it can help your landscape photos.