Landscapes are at the same time one of the easiest and most difficult subjects to
photograph. They're easy because landscapes are so familiar, accessible and permanent.
Usually, there are no extreme technical difficulties. A GREAT landscape photo takes a lot
of thinking, however. On a practical level, you can follow a few useful compositional
techniques. Incorporate classic compositional techniques such as horizontal or vertical
lines, warm and cool colors, contrasts in textures, and more. Simplicity helps. The
relationship of nearby objects to a distant scene, such as ripples in a sand dune to a
desert horizon gives a three-dimensional aspect. Telephoto lenses are great for isolating
elements and compressing perspective. But there's a lot more...
When photographing landscapes, think of transitions or edges. Change is what gives life
to landscapes. Transitions can encompass many categories: the transition between dark and
dawn, between sunset and night. Transitions may include a breaking or building storm, the
first flowers of spring or the last leaves of autumn. Effective composition also falls
into the "transitions" category: dark to light, warm to cool, silhouettes to
detail. A great landscape photograph is dynamic rather than static. Even though a
photograph is two-dimensional and captures one moment, it should be about time and change.
Eliot Porter, one of the first landscape photographers to work in color, wrote, "All
the cycles of life are beautiful. Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright
colors. Nature should be viewed without distinction."
Light is the paint that a photographer uses. The Golden Light of daybreak and sunset
has built entire photographers' careers. Mountains often have clear, crisp, hard-edged
light, while coasts and rainforest are bathed in soft, misty light. Light transforms the
land. "There are consistently different qualities of light all over the world,"
says Art Wolfe, best-known for his wildlife photos. "The light complements the
subject matter. It defines the composition. The composition dictates the type of light
I'll shoot it in--then I have to find the right light." Wolfe does a lot of
previsualization; he says, "I rarely drive through a landscape where the light is
great at that moment. When shooting landscapes, you're at once a photographer and a
meteorologist. Is the weather clearing? Where will the sun be at five o'clock as opposed
to 10 this morning?" He adds, "When the sun is on the horizon, a mere matter of
seconds can have a profound effect. It's just as fleeting as wildlife--if not even
more." Wolfe says, "There are two common errors made by beginning photographers.
First, they identify a subject, but they don't know how to capture it so that it is the
clear subject in the final image. Second, they think that a good photographer just goes
out and gets a great landscape because he or she knows where it is...Knowing when NOT to
shoot is more important than knowing what to shoot. You have to decide what will make a
good shot and what won't. There's a difference between documenting what you're seeing and
getting a great shot."
On lenses: Although wide-angle lenses are most commonly used for landscapes, Art Wolfe
says, "You must use the lens that will bring out the best composition. This is
accomplished by becoming familiar with the perspective of your lenses. That comes from
experience. I tend to shoot more with telephoto lenses because I like to pull the little
compositions from the greater landscape before me. Telephotos not only isolate and allow
me to eliminate distracting elements, they allow me to get compositions and subject matter
that nobody else has. I can stand at one spot and shoot 20 different landscapes...With
telephotos, I get a lot of private compositions."
Of course, most great landscapes are made in the magic hours of dawn and dusk. In
California latitudes, figure an hour or so at each end of the day for this great
"window" of photography time. This time frame stretches at higher latitudes so
that in northern Canada several hours may be available to you. Use your meter, but bracket
until you understand what your film gives you. You'll find the different interpretations
of so-called "under-exposed" and "over-exposed" film very interesting.
Great composition is essential. Follow the rules presented earlier for effective
photographs. Especially think warm and cool colors. Because landscapes don't move, you can
use slow shutter speeds and great depth of field, if that is the creative effect you want.
Go ahead and blur the foreground (such as tree leaves framing your subject) for another
kind of effect.
In-focus foreground can add a lot to a landscape photograph because it can add a
three-dimensional quality to a two-dimensional image. The ability to include an arresting
foreground in a landscape photograph will provide more information for the viewer, while
giving an perspective to the entire image. Wide-angle lenses are great for this because of
their inherent depth of field and stretching of foreground/background distance, but beware
of exposure problems. Spot-meter (take close-up readings) of your areas of important
Landscape photographer Jeff Gnass says that a great landscape photo requires the
deliberate, sometimes painstaking arrangement of support elements such as boughs, plants,
rocks and land contours to enhance the central subject. Gnass of course does not
physically arrange these elements; rather, he moves his camera or changes lenses to create
his arrangements. The framing can be as important as the subject itself. Paradoxically,
support elements may even dwarf a subject while actually enhancing the impact.
But you must add your own personality and experience. Says Dewitt Jones who has just
published a book of California landscape photography, another addition to his decades of
work for such publications as National Geographic and Outdoor Photographer,
"If you don't give it your own spin, you can buy postcards and ready-to-go slides in
the curio shops that are going to be a lot prettier than most people can take. Unless you
just like pushing the button, your enjoyment of being there is the joy of seeing and
photographing." He says you must come up with your own personal view and memories of
the place. He adds, "You certainly don't want to be a slave to the pursuit of
difference for its own sake. I am not thinking, 'What can I do to make this shot different
from any photograph I have every seen?' Rather, I am asking myself, 'What's turning me on?
What's exciting me?' By trusting in your own feelings of the moment, you can rest assured
that your photography will have its own individuality...but you have to take those few
moments and ask the right questions." And then, "It's a fine line between
pictorial and graphic. If you become so "tripped out" in your own art to the
point that a memorable place is reduced to pure line and light, people back home are going
to say, 'It's pretty...but what is it?'
Jones talks about "being there"..."My first step is to put myself in the
place with the most potential for things happening. At noon, the odds aren't good. If you
are there with a breaking storm, the odds are better. You have to keep going back until it
happens, and then you have to know your equipment well enough to know what to do during
those 60 seconds of great light. You don't want to suddenly realize you are on frame 36,
or be unsure whether to use a 20mm or 28mm. Beyond all that, you still have to look for
things that excite you. You still have to fall in love with something."
"The whole picture has to talk to you. You should be able to look at it day after
day and continue to see something new, says Jim Brandenburg, known for his wolf
photographs and recently of a unique book of Minnesota landscape photographs, Chased by
the Light. "In my photography, I seek to be more abstract rather than rely on
literal symbols like an old tree or a historical monument. The bright light of day
obliterates the mystery of the murky past....There's a sense of spiritualism that I try
very hard to achieve. That's an odd word to use, a bit new-age or hard for some people to
relate to, but places like this [the sequoias, in his example] are my religion to the
point that I can be deeply moved by what I see. If I can capture a tiny bit of that
reverence, I'm gratified."
The very act of photographing," says philosopher/photographer Freeman Patterson,
"intensifies one's visual experience. Even if my photographs are never seen, I feel
that the critical visual examination will enrich my experience. So for me, photography is
important in its own right, quite apart from the end product."..."I always think
of a photograph as a statement of a relationship. The subject matter contributes something
and the artist contributes something. Given the same subject matter, two people will draw
two different conclusions."..."when people become serious about nature
photography, they often begin with close-ups. By taking a very small area, they can limit
the visual elements, understand them and organize them in the picture space...Once a
photographer matures, he or she should be able to step back and apply the same exercise in
simplicity of composition to a whole sweep of landscape...More is not better. One can have
more food and have a poorer meal. Often, success comes from selecting portions of the vast
landscape that adequately speaks for the whole. This move to simplification always takes
place, but I think there should come a point when the photographer can go back to the
enormous sweep again, but somehow see it with a kind of simplicity; compose the photograph
so it does invoke the whole...The natural designs are the shapes, lines and textures
created by the earth-building processes. They exist quite independently of the play of
light on the earth's surface. On top of these natural designs we get light. On an overcast
day, natural designs are less affected by light's graphic alterations. The natural designs
are neither diminished nor enhanced. When the sun fall across the natural designs, then
portions are either obliterated (by shadow) or enhanced (by highlights)."
Sierra Club large-format landscape photographer Philip Hyde says that figuring out what
draws your attention to a particular area is essential. Is it the light? A circumstance? A
physical object? He stresses that "creating a photograph is a process of struggling
to bring the different elements into some kind of relationship, some kind of balance or
tension that makes the photograph." To Hyde the camera movements, lens choice and the
willingness to walk away when you realize that sometimes the elements just aren't right,
are the most important tools to have when making a picture.
Okay, Okay, a Few Nuts and Bolts...
Most photographers use wide-angle lenses for landscapes. In addition, they usually
strive for maximum depth of field, which means slow shutter speeds and hence, tripods and
cable releases. Because landscapes stay still, photographers also use the finest-grain
film possible, such as Fujichrome Velvia or some of the new Ektachromes. Some
photographers begin their careers working with 35mm SLR cameras and soon move to
medium-formet or view cameras, because of the higher quality made possible by the larger
Try putting a person in your landscape. As a distant silhouette or spot of warm color,
the person can add scale and color contrast to your landscape.
Another effective landscape composition technique is to take advantage of reflections,
whether your subject (a building, tree or mountain, for example) is reflected in a mud
puddle or ocean. Wide-angle lenses are especially effective for this trick.
As mentioned above, light is everything. Try shooting into backlit scenes at sunrise
and sunset. Photograph into the sun, stopping down to f/22 and half-hiding the sun behind
a tree branch; you'll get a beautiful "star" effect.
We tend to think of stormy days as no good for landscape photography. Sometimes that's
the case. But a foggy, light-rain day can be fabulous, with delicate pastel tones and
bejeweled plants. Some areas-such as the coastal redwoods-are nearly impossible to
photograph except on such days. There are some technical challenges: wet equipment that
must be somehow kept dry, plus low light levels. Also remember that if you try to meter a
landscape with lots of rainy-day sky, the white of the clouds will throw off your exposure
and you'll have a foreground that's way too dark and lacking in detail because there's no
sun to add a three-dimensional effect.
Use a polarizer for maximum color saturation. If you're shooting black and white, use
red or orange filters on a sunny day to darken the sky and maintain the tactile sense of
white cumulus clouds.
Experiment with shutter speeds: try slow shutter speeds in a field of grass on a windy
day. Waterfalls take on a gossamer texture when photographed at 1/2 or 1 second. (If you
can't use this slow a shutter speed because of bright conditions, consider using a neutral
A split neutral density filter will correct the problems of mountains or skyline that's
too bright and foreground that's too dark (see the filter section of this manual).
Try different angles for your landscapes. Get down on the ground with a wide-angle
lens, for example, and use a field of flowers to frame distant mountains. Climb a tree or
a flight of outdoor stairs for an unusual angle.