Landscape Photography Basics

Matt Williams — 1 October 2020
While the world of landscape photography is complex, there are a couple of basic rules that help get the most out of holiday snaps

We've all been there. On the trip of a lifetime, driving through one stunning landscape after the other. There's a lookout ahead. So you pull the car over, stop and get out. You walk to the edge of the platform, bring the camera to your eyes and fire off a couple of frames. You get back in the car and drive off.

When you get home, you download your photos onto your computer. Excitement builds and you click on open, only to find them dull and boring. They just don't have that ‘wow’ factor or invoke the feeling you had when you were there.

In this article, I'm not going to go all camera geek on you and start talking about weird things like the exposure triangle, RAW vs JPEG, ISO, GNDs or any other acronym. What you'll discover are six basic tips that will turn your holiday snapshots into something you’ll be proud to hang on your wall.

TIP #1

Before we get to the good stuff, we have to start with the boring stuff. In my opinion, in the world of photography, you will struggle to find something more boring than a tripod.

While you can go all fancy and get a carbon fibre model with five leg sections that folds up to the size of a box of tissues, at the end of the day, a tripod is just somewhere for your camera to sit.

When purchasing a tripod, it is important however, that you get yourself a good sturdy model — just don't go buying one that is so heavy you don't want to carry it. As with most things, buy the best one you can afford, look after it and it will last you a long time. 

My current tripod is over 10 years old and has seen many hard days' work in sand, mud and salt water. Usually a quick wash with fresh water is all that is needed, but every 12–18 months I give it a full strip-down and service.

Tripods help your photography in so many ways. First and foremost, a tripod provides a solid and stable base for your camera. Being able to keep it steady will in turn allow you to make longer exposures, especially at sunrise and sunset. 

Want to take a photo of that waterfall and get that misty, ethereal look to the water? You're going to need a tripod. 

Fancy taking a shot of the Milky Way? Guess what? Yep, you're going to need a tripod for that kind of shot, too.

The other great thing about a tripod, is that it slows everything down. There's no turning up to that lookout and taking a scatter gun approach, hoping that you've bagged a good one — spray and pray as I like to say.

Using a tripod requires a more methodical approach to your photography, and gets you thinking about everything just that little bit more. Which leads me to…

TIP #2

Now, I did say I wasn't going to go all camera nerd on you, but composition is one of those things you do need to really think about. There are some basic rules to composition that we need to learn first before we can then think about breaking them a little bit further down the track.

Techniques like ‘Leading Lines’ and ‘S Curves’ have their part to play when creating photographic works of art, as do ‘Symmetry and Balance’, ‘Sub-framing’ and the use of negative space.

However, the ‘Rule of Thirds’ is probably the most used compositional tool that us photographers use. While it is called the rule of thirds, I like to think of it more as a guideline.

In layman’s terms, this means your image is divided up into nine equal parts by two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal lines. The subject, or important parts of the image, lie along these lines or at an intersection of a horizontal and vertical line.

The great thing is the majority of digital cameras have a grid view to use when shooting, which helps to apply this compositional tool to your shots.

Another great trick to use is leading lines, and this is one of the best ways to guide the viewer through your image. And the best thing is, nature is full of them.

It may be a road, a stream, a jetty or ripples in the sand. Once you start to implement them into your photography, you'll notice them everywhere.

Oh yeah, I nearly forgot. No matter what you do, please make sure your horizon is level. Nothing makes my eye twitch more than seeing a horizon running downhill. Thanks again to the wonders of modern technology, digital cameras have built-in levels these days, so there really isn't any excuse.

TIP #3

Proudly brought to you by your alarm clock, Tip #3 is all about the time of day. 

Us landscape photographers love this weird phenomenon called golden hour. It happens at both ends of the day at sunrise and sunset. So, for those of you that don't like an early start, you've always got sunset to fall back on. 

If you don't mind getting out of bed at stupid o'clock, then you get two bites at the photography cherry.

Generally speaking, the light at golden hour, as the name suggests, is soft and warm and paints the landscape in its best light. You also get the bonus of beautiful colours in the sky, as the clouds light up as they reflect the sun's rays.

While this doesn't mean you can't take great photographs in the middle of the day, it just makes your task that little more difficult thanks to the harshness of the light.

Don't be afraid to head out in inclement weather either, as some fantastic moody images can be made under dark and foreboding skies. Just remember your rain coat!

TIP #4

OK. Now on to the fun stuff. What are you actually shooting?

Before you even bring the camera to your eye, or place it on the tripod, you need to survey the scene and work out what the subject is. It might be a grand vista, but if it doesn't have a subject, it's not going to hold interest for very long.

Once you've worked out your subject, think back to tip #3 and decide which compositional tool you're going to pull out of bag. 

If you're shooting an impressive mountain range in the distance, don't forget to consider what's in the foreground which might be interesting. By thinking of all parts of your image, and then tying them together, you'll increase the visual impact of the photograph.

Another big tip for new players is to make sure you pay attention to the sky. If the sky is boring, don't let it dominate your photo. 

Instead place the horizon in the upper third of your shot and focus on your foreground elements. However, if the sky is full of drama or colour, or both, let it play the starring role in your image.

Sometimes when faced with an epic view in front of you, you might want to try and capture it all in a single shot. 

But sometimes it is what you leave out of a shot that can have a greater impact on what you leave in — think of your subject as the main actor in a movie, and everything else is the supporting cast. 

TIP #5

We're nearly there everyone, but already we've made some huge leaps forward with our photography. We've only another two tips to go before we let you loose into the wild with your newfound bag of tricks.

Tip #5 is all about your POV. Sorry, I just had to throw an in acronym somewhere in this article!

POV stands for Point of View, and it's all about changing it up. Of the estimated one trillion plus photos that were taken during the last year, I would hazard a guess a great percentage of them were taken from between 1.5 and 1.8m (5ft and 6ft) off the ground. Why's that you ask? Well, because that's around eye height.

Just like that photo you took at the lookout back at the start of this article, most people just bring their camera to their eye and snap away.

Take your time when you get to the lookout, that rocky headland or mountain pass. You've already got your tripod out, so you're already slowing things down a bit.

Assess the scene and decide whether a lower, or higher viewpoint might make for a better shot. 

If you can, move to your left, or to your right to find that better composition. If you want to go a lot higher, you'll either need to invest in a drone or buy a helicopter. Pro tip: Drones are a lot cheaper.

TIP #6

Usually the best gets saved to last, but sorry, the best tip (in my opinion anyway) is way back at #1. So if you're one of those people who skip to the bottom of an online article looking for the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), you could have stopped after Tip #1.

Tip #6 is a bit of an oxymoron. On one hand I'm going to tell you to be patient, to kick back and relax. On the other, I'm going to tell you not to be lazy!

OK, let me try to explain.

Tip #6A — be patient. What I mean by this, is allow yourself time at your chosen location. Again, it's all about slowing things down to get great results. 

Wait for the sun to peak out from behind that cloud. Wait for the rain shower to pass. Wait for those last rays of sunset to paint the clouds in vibrant colours.

Sometimes, the difference between a so-so pic and a wall hanger can literally only be a couple of minutes.

Tip #6B — don't be lazy. I'm going to go all Norm from Life. Be in it. on you here and tell you to stop being a lazy bugger. And I mean lazy with your photography. Don't just take that same photo from the same spot as everyone else, especially when you're at a super popular tourist hotspot.

Go for a walk, take that trail or climb that hill (safely, of course) to get a shot that no one else has taken before. I can assure you; it will be worth it.

So there you have it, my six tips for better landscape photography. There are heaps more and I am definitely not saying I know them all, far from it. But, if you're only just starting out, or wondering why your holiday snaps don't have that impact, these tips are really going to help.

Just remember, too, that you can combine any of these tips to create even more powerful images. And also, digital is cheap, so get out there, shoot and experiment as much as you can!


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Matt Williams