When taking landscape photos, how do you pick your composition? It all begins with scene selection. But, it isn't always about finding the most dramatic scenery to photograph. In this article, pro landscape photographer Ian Plant discusses some of his strategies for finding powerful landscape photos.
Gorgeous scenery certainly doesn't hurt, but you can make effective photos even in places where the landscape isn't as spectacular as this scene from Patagonia. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm lens, ISO 200, f/11, 0.3 seconds.
Taking great landscape photos requires more than just showing up at some scenic area and pointing your camera at the most beautiful parts of the landscape. To make effective photos, you need to carefully research and explore an area. Your goal is to not only bring out the best of the scenery, but to also tell the story of the landscape you are photographing. Ultimately, you are looking for a way to forge a powerful connection with anyone who looks at your photos, inspiring and exciting them about the scene that you have captured with your camera.
Whenever I travel to a new photo location, I start with some online research just to get a feel for the place. I don't want to look too much at other people's images, because I don't want my personal vision influenced by what others are doing, but I try to at least get a general idea of what to expect. But after that, it is all "boots on the ground." I explore the area as much as possible, trying to find interesting subjects. I might start by driving around to generally scout, and when something interesting catches my eye, I'll get out of the car and hike around to see what I can find (I almost always prefer to get away from the road as much as possible to find unique perspectives, as most photographers rarely shoot more than a few feet from the car).
Getting off the beaten path can help you find unique perspectives. For this photo taken in Greenland, I hired a motorboat to take me out among the icebergs, and then flew my drone to capture this photo of an impressive iceberg drifting beneath a stunning mountain. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 320, f/5.6, 1/20 second.
So, once I am out and about exploring, what am I looking for? To some extent, I’m looking for stunning scenery. But usually I'm looking for a point of interest for my background. Simply put, a point of interest is any feature of the landscape that will focus the viewer's attention. A point of interest can be a stunning landscape feature. Or, it can be something nondescript; often, I am just looking for something prominent in the background that sticks out from the surrounding landscape, relying on a dynamic foreground to make the composition interesting.
For this photo of a field of blooming wildflowers in Iceland, I found a point of interest for my background. It wasn't a very interesting landscape feature, but it stands out and creates a place to eventually focus the viewer's attention. Sony a7RIII, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 800, f/11, 1/15 second, focus stack blend.
But I’m also looking to create a sense of place, which is best approached by simply asking the following questions: What is it about the scenery that I find inspiring or appealing? What seems unique to me? What can be found here that can’t be found anywhere else? Which features of the scenery tell its story best? Answering these questions helps me decide which visual elements to include in the composition.
One of my favorite landscape locations is Badlands National Park in South Dakota. When photographing there, I look for interesting patterns in the cracked mud landscape that lead to photogenic features in the background. Bringing these elements together helps me tell the story of this colorful place. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/25 second, focus stack blend.
I’m not really looking for stunning scenery (or at least, I’m not just looking for stunning scenery): instead, I’m looking to assemble a group of visual elements together to form a pleasing and compelling composition. To that end, I critically assess elements of the landscape, not just as what they are (such as wildflowers, mountains, etc.), but also in terms of their shape, color, and luminosity (that is, how bright or dark they are).
The scenery isn't really your subject when you are making landscape photos. Or, at least, it is just part of the overall subject. You must critically assess visual elements and think of them in terms of shape, color, and brightness, and then figure out a way to bring all of those elements together to create a pleasing landscape composition. For this photo taken in Iceland, I was obviously there to get shots of the erupting volcano, but to make an effective image, I looked for interesting shapes and colors to include within my composition. The volcano itself is just one element within the overall visual design. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/320 second.
Typically, I’m also looking for an interesting foreground to juxtapose against my chosen background. In this sense, scene selection isn't just about the scenery, it is also about the stuff that is literally at your feet. For some landscape photos, the foreground is more important than the scenery in the background. Once I find an interesting foreground to complete my landscape composition, I’ll return to the location at sunrise or sunset and hope for incredible light to bring the scene to its fullest potential.
When making landscape photos, a dynamic foreground is just as important, if not more important, than the background scenery. I spent several long hours exploring this frozen lake in the Canadian Rockies, looking for interest patterns and bubbles in the ice. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1 second, focus stack blend.
Scene selection is so much more than just finding beautiful scenery. A good landscape photo will often bring together multiple near and far visual elements, and the scenery is pushed to the background of the composition. Choose those elements carefully to create a sense of place and to tell the story of the landscape scene you are photographing.
LEARN MORE: Check out my Ultimate Landscape Photography Course. Packed with over three hours of field and digital darkroom instruction, you'll learn how to make the landscape photos you've always dreamed of taking.
About the author
Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.