To very many photographers who are new to the art of photography, it seems that landscape photography appears an easy route to capturing some great, impressive looking imagery. Landscapes just look amazing while you’re standing there in front of them, don’t they? So, if you’re a relatively inexperienced photographer, it may seem as though nature has already provided you with something that is visually stunning — all you need to do is point your camera at what you’re viewing and click the shutter-release on your camera. As long as you do a reasonable job of getting the exposure correct, you’ll capture what you’re seeing. And, since what you’re seeing looks impressive to you, you’ll have made an impressive photo.
So, you try it. You take your landscape photo. And, you get home, load your photos onto your computer… and… they’re not very good. That remarkably beautiful landscape just doesn’t look as impressive in your photo as it did to your own eyes. Compared to the actual scene you viewed, your landscape photo looks lifeless, flat, boring, unimpressive. What happened?
What happened is that (A) A camera is not a human eye. And, (B) you don’t know how to take truly stunning landscape photos. Like all types of photography, in order to truly get the best, most striking images, landscape photography takes some skill — it takes some know-how. If you just point a camera at an impressive landscape scene and click, the result is going to be that you’ll get an image which looks like you’ve done nothing more than that. Because, of course, you HAVE done nothing more than that.
Luckily, while you still need some skill and know-how in order to create those exceptionally great looking, awe inspiring landscape photos you so often see from the pros — as different types of photography goes, landscape photography is one of the more easier types when it comes to gaining a respectable level of proficiency in such skill and technique. What you need to start on your way to getting to that level are just a few simple, basic landscape photography tips for beginners.
The first thing you should do, of course, is to make sure you’re up to snuff when it comes to all of the most fundamental, basic rules that apply to photography generally. Make sure you’re familiar with at least the basic concepts of good composition, for starters. If you aren’t already, then get familiar with the Rule of Thirds, and the concepts of image balance, symmetry, leading lines and how to create a sense of depth in a photo. And, as is one of the most basic and important landscape photography tips for beginners, work on getting your horizons straight!
If you don’t already know about the slanting-horizon problem, then you need to pay attention here: Probably the most tell-tale sign of an amateurishly shot landscape is the less than straight horizon line — a horizon line which runs on some sort of diagonal angle across a landscape photo. If you look at landscape photographs shot by pros, pay attention to the line created by the horizon in an image — if the image contains one. You’ll notice that, unless, in rare cases, the line is WAY off at an angle, and it’s obvious the photographer meant it to be in order to achieve an effect, then the horizon line is dead straight. In amateur landscape photos, and a lot of holiday snap-shot types of images taken by non-photographers, you’ll notice this line is somewhat off being perfectly horizontal.
This can absolutely ruin a photo. If the line is just slightly off being perfectly horizontal, it can have what is really a sub-conscious effect on the viewer. They wont notice that the angled horizon line is why the photo appears to them to not be a very good photo, but they know the photo appears to them to not be a very good photo. Beginner photographers, very often, suffer from this same sub-concious effect. They’re completely blind to the off-kilter horizon line — they really can’t see it; can’t notice it. But, they know there’s ‘something’ wrong with their image. They know it doesn’t look good. Very likely, even though they just aren’t seeing it, that slightly slanted horizon line is affecting their assessment of the quality of their landscape photo without them even knowing.
So, make sure your horizon lines are straight! Each time you get ready to take a landscape photo, when you’re looking through your viewfinder, or at your view-screen, make a point of looking at, and taking clear notice of, any horizon lines in your image. Ask yourself if they’re dead-on straight, running from one side of the frame to the other. If they’re not, adjust the tilt of your camera until they are, and do not snap the photo until the horizon is as perfectly horizontal in the frame as you can get it. Make a conscious effort to do this every time you get ready to take a landscape photo. When you get your photo into Lightroom (Or, whatever post-processing software you use) double check the straightness of your horizon line. If it’s off, use the straighten tool to get it as perfect as you can in the final image. But, try to get it as close to perfect IN-CAMERA. The more you’re off in-camera, the more drastic the straightening you’ll need to do in Lightroom — which means the more of your image you’ll need to crop-out — potentially ruining your intended composition or having to crop-out important elements.
So, when it comes to landscape photography tips for beginners that’s rule number one. If you didn’t already know it: Learn it, live it, become it! Now here’s some more great and essential landscape photography tips for beginners:
Avoid cutting your photos in half!
There’s some sort of tendency wired into the human brain, it seems, to make people want to do this almost as if by instinct: When taking a photo which includes both ground and sky, an amateur will tend to put the horizon-line right through the center of the image — So that the area of sky which appears in the image is roughly equal in size to the area of land/ground in the image which appears in the photo.
You almost never want to do this — so close to ‘almost never’, in fact, that’s its pretty safe to say that there will very, very likely never be a single time in your life when you’ll want to do this. It will make your photos look amateurish and horrible. You want to place that horizon line practically anywhere else other than dead center. If in doubt regarding where to place it, refer to the rule of thirds and place that horizon line directly over one of the rule-of-thirds horizontal lines.
Try it the next time you’re out taking landscape photos — take two photos of exactly the same scene, using all the same exposure settings, lens settings, etc., and from exactly the same vantage points. But, in one photo, place your horizon dead center of the image. In the other, place it over one of the rule-of-thirds horizontal lines, so that roughly one-third of your image is taken up by sky, or ground, and two-thirds is taken up by the opposite (ground or sky). When you get home, look at both of your photos. You’ll very likely be stunned at just how much more ‘professional’ the rule-of-thirds photo looks compared to the other — even though everything else about it is the same.
Get to know your scene.
Amateur landscape photographers have a tendency to see a landscape and just go ahead and shoot it. But, many great and experienced landscape photographers that consistently take the best and most impressive looking landscape photos don’t operate this way. Instead, once finding a promising location which offers the potential for a great image, they will spend time at the location scouting it. They will invest the time to become familiar with the area and the visual potential it provides. They will survey the area from different angles — explore, on foot, the entire area — looking for the absolute best shooting locations and angles relative to the scenery, present objects and available light. So, get to know your scene beforehand.
Landscape photography isn’t about seeing an impressive looking landscape, aiming your camera and pressing the shutter release. Doing that will give you a snapshot. Of course, talented and skilled photographers can get some pretty amazing looking snapshots from time to time. But, if you really want to gain the highest level of surety that your landscape image is going to be truly spectacular, it will require some investment in time and effort. Actually ‘clicking the picture’ should be seen more as the final step in the entire process of crafting a beautiful image. It takes a process to make a truly great photograph. It takes pointing and clicking to get a snapshot which does little more than to simply and boringly document where you were when you took that snapshot.
Go to the location you’re interested in photographing and get to know it. Become familiar with the area. If you do, it’ll tell you its best attributes which you can utilize to pull the best possible photographs out of it.
Chase the light!
Photography — always — is, first and foremost, about light. And, that’s what you need to be most aware of. The quality of the light will have a massive impact on the quality of your photographs. Stop thinking of photography as the practice of visually capturing objects, and start thinking of it as capturing the light coming off of those objects.
Most truly jaw-dropping landscape photos are captured either in the hour after sunrise, or the hour before sunset. So, in order to take advantage of that spectacular ‘golden-hour’ light, do your research before hand. Know when sunset and sunrise happens at your desired location, and be there.
Of course, sometimes shooting at such times just isn’t an option. And, while it might be ideal to capture your scene during those hours, if you can’t, all is not lost. And, you still shouldn’t give up hunting for great light. If time is on your side — perhaps the location is close to you, and you can travel there pretty much whenever you wish, or something like that — then pick the right day. Bright, day-light sun will produce harsh shadows and a high-contrast scene with vivid colors. Is that what your photo needs? Conversely, overcast days will produce softer shadows, or no shadows, with less intense colors and a more moody effect. Which is right for your photo? Decide, and shoot on the day when the character of the light is most appropriate.
Invest in a circular polarizing filter.
Buy yourself a circular polarizing filter and learn how to use it! A circular polarizer can deepen and darken the blues of a sky, giving it a solid, rich, non-washed out look. It will also intensify colors under the right conditions, and remove ugly glare from water surfaces. No serious landscape photographer should be without one in their kit. Next to your camera, lens and, possibly, tripod, it’s the most important tool in a landscape photographer’s gear list.
Get yourself a tripod!
Certainly, a good tripod will not be needed for every landscape photo you take. But, I think there’s probably not any such thing as a serious landscape photographer who doesn’t own one. And, most would scarcely be caught dead out in the field without having it along with them — in case its needed. If you get out in the field and discover, once on scene, that the shot demands the use of a long lens in order for it to be all it can be, and such a length of lens will negate the ability to hand-hold the shot, lest unwanted camera-shake gets introduced into the picture, then you’ll need to have a tripod with you, or you’ll lose that shot.
Likewise, if light levels are such that a slow camera speed is required — once so slow that, again, the introduction of unwanted camera-shake is going to be a problem — then, again, you’ll need a tripod.
There will also be times when you’ll want to use extremely long shutter-speeds in order to blur the motion of, perhaps, a babbling brook, or perhaps, the surface of a rough lake, river or ocean. These shots can not be achieved without the use of a tripod.
Composition, composition, composition!
Learn the basic rules of composition — learn about the rule of thirds, the concept of leading lines, and think in terms of photographic elements within your scene. Think in terms of not just blandly documenting a scene as it lays out before you, but in terms of crafting a remarkable landscape photograph. Look around your environment and try to notice foreground elements, mid-range elements and background elements. Try to pick-out interesting subject elements which will act as the focus of your image. Spend time considering all of these things, and think about how to use them and position them within frame in order to create an interesting image.
Perhaps a pile of washed-up driftwood on a beach would serve as an interesting foreground element placed close in frame near the bottom of the photo? Perhaps, for the mid-ground, there’s an old pier with a moored fishing boat just a little ways further down the beach? And, for a background element, even the distant water’s horizon-line will serve nicely? Or, perhaps, a line of rolling hills far in the distance, or some such thing?
Look around the area, and notice these elements. Spend time walking around and thinking — surveying the elements and the environment they exist in — in order to try and discover, or recognize, the best angles the photo might be taken in in order to utilize these elements to create a great photograph.