One of the main challenges of landscape photography is to produce a representation of a three dimensional scene, in a flat two dimensional medium. To this end, here are some technical and artistic choices to consider.
Setting the scene
1. Select your focal point
Spend time examining your location for a clear, strong focal point. This will be the main point of interest within your frame, where you wish to direct the viewer’s attention. Look for other elements within the scene to support your composition, and convey the mood of the scene.
2. Simplify the scene
Your aim here is to exaggerate your focal point and simplify its surroundings. This will further emphasize its importance. Try to ensure that each element included in your frame/shot, serve in telling your viewer something about the scene.
Pay particular attention to potentially distracting elements at the edges of your frame. If needed change your camera position and recompose the scene to exclude all unnecessary information.
3. Experiment with vantage points
- Take a few shots at eye level.
- Explore photographing the same scene from higher or lower vantage points, as well as diagonally.
In each of these instances, notice how the scene changes from one perspective to the next. Pay particular attention to elements that would now be included or excluded from your frame.
4. Shoot vertically
Landscape photography is mostly shot in the horizontal/landscape format. However in some instances, shooting vertically can better improve your composition. For example when shooting tall trees or an exceptionally tall mountain.
5. Use leading lines
Leading lines serve to connect the elements within your frame, leading your viewer’s attention to the focal point.
Examine the scene for elements that may aid in creating a structured visual path within your frame. Such a path would typically start at the bottom of the frame guiding the eye upwards and inwards, from the foreground of the image to the background.
Winding streams, roads as well as fence lines, coastlines, S curves, and sunrays, can serve as strong leading lines. Your aim here is to grab the viewer’s attention and keep it lingering longer. To achieve this avoid leading lines that lead the viewer out of the frame. Use diagonal lines when available, to create an added sense of depth and dimensionality.
Leading lines, creating a visual path towards the tree in the distance.
6. Use the Rule of thirds
The rule of third states that a scene should be divided using 2 horizontal lines intercepted by 2 vertical lines at 90 degrees.
Based on this rule you would aim to place our focal point on one of the points of intersection, rather than placing it in the middle of the frame. Placing your focal point slightly off centre will give it more visual weight.
When photographing a moving subject, such as a river or a stream, aim to place your subject such that there is enough space for movement within the frame.
The stream starts at bottom left, moving inward and upward.
7. Adjust your virtual horizon
Keep your horizon straight. A crooked horizon leaves the viewer with an uneasy feeling. Some tripods come with a bubble level to indicate when your camera is level. This in turn will ensure that your horizon is straight.
Alternatively you can realign your horizon in post. However you stand the risk of eliminating some of the elements of your composition that fall on the edges of the frame.
Placing the horizon in the middle of the image implies that both land and sky are of equal interest. While placing it at the lower third, gives the sky more visual weight, pulling your viewer’s attention to the sky. Alternatively you may move the horizon to the upper third of the frame to emphasize the ground.
8. Break the rule of thirds
If the sky in your scene is not particularly interesting, you may compose your shot, such that the sky would only occupy the top eighth of the frame.
Another exception to the rule of thirds is symmetry and reflections. In this case, the scene should be divided into two sections top and bottom, or left and right.
Creating depth through layers
9. Include the foreground
To create a convincing illusion, of a three-dimensional space on a flat surface, you will need to include three layers within your frame. A foreground, middle ground, and a background. The foreground is defined as the elements between you and your subject. Your subject is the middle ground. While all that falls behind your subject, serves as the background.
Lower your camera’s angle to incorporate rocks, flowers, or anything else that is on the ground into your image. This will add depth and interest, as well as serving as an entry point into your image.
The rocks in the foreground, act as the first layer, a point of entry into the frame.
10. Use Framing
A frame can refer to the external border of the image itself. However within a particular scene, framing refers to the act of drawing attention to your focal point; by isolating it from its surroundings.
To achieve this effect you may opt to shoot through overhanging branches, a window, a tunnel, an arch or a doorway. A frame need not enclose the focal point completely, it might be sufficient to frame one or two sides. By adding this extra -slightly out of focus- layer in the foreground of your shot you increase the sense of depth and dimensionality.
As with any additional element, consider if it truly enhances your focal point or distracts from it.
Framing can also add a sense of originality. To what might be an over-photographed scene or landmark. Additionally you can use framing to add context. Some foliage in the foreground of a shot can convey a sense of being out in nature.
The tree foliage frames the scene
11. Use Vertical layering
Alternatively the vertical layering of elements can also enhance the illusion of depth. With the lower elements in the image appearing closer. While those higher up, appearing further away. Move your camera higher, lower, or to one side to incorporate those elements inside your frame.
12. Create Visual Balance
Visual balance refers to the distribution of the perceived visual weight of the elements within an image. The visual weight of an element is measured by its ability to attract our attention.
Some of the factors influencing the object’s visual weight are size, texture, colour, tone, depth of field and light.
For example larger objects are perceived as heavier than smaller objects. The color red is perceived to be heavier than blue. Dark objects are perceived to be heavier than bright objects, and objects in focus as heavier than those out of focus. Whereas a human figure will outweigh all other elements.
In this scene, the range of mountains to the right of the frame, is offset by the palm trees on the left.
13. Emphasise Scale
When photographing a tree trunk. Or an impressively high mountain range. You might find that your image does not reflect the true greatness of your subject. Having someone stand at the bottom of the hill or next to that gigantic tree trunk. Will give your viewer an instant sense of scale.
In this scene the human figures under the tree give the viewer a sense of scale.
14. Use vertical hierarchy
Playing with the position of your focal point can also add to its weight/importance. By placing your focal point higher in the frame. You can increase its perceived importance. Versus the elements placed lower in the frame.
15. Time your shoot
The quality and impact of your shot will depend to a great extent on the scene’s dynamic range. This is reflected by the ratio of light, shadows and highlights within a scene. A brightly lit scene with low levels of light to dark contrast may convey a sense of calm as well as harmony between the elements in the image.
Alternatively a dramatic mood can be achieved in large, through the use of high contrast. Shooting at High noon, on a bright sunny day, creates a rather flat scene, lacking in depth and dimension.
Ideally you should plan to start shooting a couple of hours before sunset, or the first couple hours after sunrise. These are known as the golden hours. The light at these hours is directional creating clear areas of light, highlights, and shadows. As well as casting that beautiful warm glow, typical of landscape scenes.
An overcast, foggy or misty day can also provide great opportunities for capturing sun rays streaming through. To get the mirror like reflective waters in ponds, or lakes, start your shoot at dawn, while the water is still.
16. Use bracketing
A Scene that has a wide contrast in tonal ranges can prove difficult to capture accurately. You might end up with overblown highlights, while the rest of the photo remains underexposed.
Adjusting such a scene in post has its drawbacks. For one It is impossible to retrieve details from over blown (solid white with no details) areas. Additionally trying to retrieve details from dark areas will exaggerate any digital noise.
To overcome this issue you may use the bracketing – exposure compensation – option in your camera settings. This will allow you to take three consecutive shots.
The camera will use your current settings for the first shot, the second will be over exposed by 1/3 to 1 f stops, while the third will be underexposed by -1/3 to -1 f stops. The three shots can also be stacked in post to create one HD image with the correct exposure in all areas.
17. Adjust your white balance
Setting your camera’s white balance to auto, will allow the camera to set the colour tones in your image according to the time of day. Should you wish to have bright blue skies, you can set your white balance to “fluorescent”. Alternatively, set your white balance to “shade” to achieve a warm orange overall tone to your image.
18. Embrace all types of weather
After the rain has stopped while the sky is still over cast, take out your macro lens and take some close shots of the foliage on trees or even on the ground. The rain makes the colors appear rich and saturated, and the water droplets hanging off leaves and flowers, make for beautiful shots.
Right after, or just before the rain starts is also a wonderful time to capture the beautiful colors of the clouds in shades of white, blues and greys. Look out for sun rays peeking through the clouds, giving you a wonderful chance to capture a dramatic scene.
Foggy days and low cloud days give soft diffused light, to get that soft dreamy look, get up to a high vantage point above the fog and clouds and shoot downwards..
19. Shoot details
When shooting flowers, get low to the level of the flower, or even lower for an interesting perspective. Shoot so that the flowers are backlit, with the sun shining thru the translucent petals.
20. Get tack sharp images
Shooting a large landscape scene poses the question of where to focus, to achieve back to front sharpness.
- Avoid camera shake, by setting up your camera on a tripod.
- Set your aperture to F16 or higher this will ensure a maximum depth of field.
- Point the active focus point at 1/3 of the distance in your frame, this will give you the highest possible sharpness from that point all the way out to infinity.
- Press the shutter half way through to set focus, then change the focus switch on your lens from auto to manual.
- Recompose and press the shutter all the way down to take the shot.
21. Shoot beautiful sunsets
To capture a beautiful sunset at the beach
- Compose your image so as to include the sand, or rocks at the edge of the water, this is your foreground with the setting sun as your middle ground, and the sky and clouds as the background.
- To avoid underexposing the scene, exclude the sun from your frame before focusing
- Set your focal point third way into the frame
- Press your shutter halfway, then set the lens to manual focus
- Recompose the shot with the sun in the frame and proceed to take the shot.
22. Shoot silky smooth waterfalls
One way to capture the effect of silky smooth water is by setting up your camera, for a long exposure.
- To avoid camera shake, during the long exposure, set up your camera on a tripod..
- Leaving the shutter open for a long period of time, will let in a great deal of light, which will result in your image being blown out/overexposed. To avoid this schedule your shoot at sunrise, sunset or an overcast day.
- For a noise free image, set your ISO to the lowest possible on your camera model, between 50 and 200.
- Set your exposure time/shutter speed between 1 to 6 seconds long
- set your aperture to F16 to 32 depending on your lens, this will ensure sharpness throughout the image.
23. Use a wide angle lens
Here are some of the advantages of using a Wide-angle lens:
- Shooting expansive landscape scenes from a close distance.
- Having a greater depth of field than can be achieved with a zoom lens. That is to say more of the scene will be sharp and in focus
- Covering a broader view, therefore conveying a sense of wide open space.
- A wide Angle lens is also great for when you want to include some interesting elements in the foreground.
24. Use a Telephoto lens
While a Wide-angle lens can give the impression of increased distance between elements in the foreground and distant elements, a telephoto lens appears to compress perspective. Consider using a telephoto when you’re framing a shot of an object in the far distance. A Telephoto will allow you to simplify the scene by isolating your main subject and removing clutter.