Ever since Ansel Adams, photographs of the natural landscape have inspired and amazed people. Great landscape photos, however, don’t just happen by pointing your camera at pretty scenery. Instead, landscape pros use a number of techniques to make captivating images, bringing their subjects to life with composition, color, and light. I’ve been shooting landscapes and nature professionally for over fourteen years, sometimes traveling to the far ends of the Earth to find compelling subjects. What follows are a few of my favorite techniques for making great landscape photos.
While exploring Olympic National Park, I was captivated by the patterns formed where a small stream emptied into the ocean, so I decided to use them as a leading foreground for this sunset photo. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/640 second.
1. Look for dramatic scenery
Picking a landscape composition begins with scene selection, and while the scenery doesn’t have to be jaw-dropping for each photo, it should at least lend itself to a compelling visual design. Before I travel to a new photo location, I start with research to get a feel for the place, consulting guide books, maps, and Google Earth to get a better sense of my options. Once I’ve picked a location, then I get out and explore trying to find interesting compositions. I do my best to get away from the beaten path as much as possible to find unique perspectives.
The mist parts to reveal the stunning scenery of Canaima National Park in Venezuela. I spent two weeks backpacking in these mountains, trying to capture the beauty of this mysterious place. Canon 70D, Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3, ISO 100, f/10, 1/100 second.
2. Capture favorable color and light
Once I find an interesting composition, I’ll make sure to be at that location at sunrise or sunset, hoping to capture incredible light and color to bring the scene to its fullest potential. During these so-called “magic hours,” the sun is low on the horizon and filtered through atmospheric particles that scatter blue light and allow warm light (such as red, orange, and yellow) to pass through. When this warm light strikes clouds and the landscape, the results can be magical—hence the name. Of course, the magic hours aren’t the only good light for landscape photography; overcast light works well for waterfall photography, and bright sunny light at midday is best for getting strong reflected light deep within shadowed slot canyons in the desert, creating a wonderful glow. But if you really want to excel as a landscape photographer, twilight, sunrise, and sunset are typically your best times for capturing stunning color and light. Don’t expect a lot of sleep!
I found this intriguing tidal pool on a remote coast in the outer Scottish isles. I waited until sunset for the best light and color to bring the composition together. Canon 5DII, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens with Canon adapter, ISO 100, f/14, 1/15 second.
3. Enhance your landscape photos with reflections
Reflections can add an extra dash of color and impressionism to your landscape photos. Water is usually the best source for landscape reflections, but ice or other surfaces can be used as well. Still water can act like a mirror, producing a near-perfect reflection of your landscape subjects, while moving water produces an indistinct reflection, often nothing more than a surreal blur. You might need to get low (sometimes down to ground level) to get the best reflections of landscape scenery.
I spent hours exploring around the base of Devils Tower in the USA, looking for a unique perspective of this famous photo icon. When I spotted a still rainwater pool on a flat boulder, I knew I had found what I was looking for. I got low to optimally position the reflection within the pool. Canon 5DSR, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/8, 1/15 second, focus stack blend for enhanced depth of field.
4. Use long exposures for moving water
When shooting waterfalls, streams, and coastal scenes, use long exposures to add a creative blur to your photos. If you use fast shutter speeds, the motion of the water is stopped, making the water appear static and unnatural. Adding motion-blur to the water looks better, but you typically don’t want to render water as completely blurred either; retaining some texture in the water usually looks best. With my camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, I usually start with a half-second exposure, and then experiment with longer or shorter exposure times until I find a shutter speed that produces the most pleasing results. If shooting in bright conditions, you may need to cut down on the light to get exposure times of sufficient length; small apertures, low ISOs, and neutral density filters (which reduce the amount of light coming through your lens) can help lengthen your exposure times.
A long exposure pleasingly blurs the rushing spring waters of this stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Nikon 14-24mm lens with Canon adapter, polarizer filter, ISO 50, f/11, 3.2 seconds.
5. Include the sun in your landscape compositions
Adding the sun creates an eye-catching point of interest, and when using a wide-angle lens, you can create an attractive “star burst” effect. Typically, a small aperture such as f/11, f/16, or f/22 is necessary to produce an attractive burst; the smaller the aperture the more pronounced the effect (although you may want to avoid extreme apertures such as f/22 because of diffraction, an optical effect resulting from using small apertures that reduces overall image sharpness). When shooting into the sun, lens flare is your single greatest challenge. To reduce flare, which most often takes the form of colorful polygonal blobs, partially block the sun with some feature of the landscape or sky, such as a tree limb, cloud, or distant mountain. Don’t block the sun completely; make sure enough light shines through to create a star burst.
The sun passes through late morning mist in Redwood National Park, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 16-35mm f/4 lens, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/11, 1/25 second.
6. Zoom in for landscape intimates
Landscape photography isn’t solely the province of wide-angle lenses. Use a short telephoto zoom to pluck out a portion of the overall scene, focusing attention on patterns in the landscape and the details of nature. Look for interesting juxtapositions of color and shape to make compelling intimate photos.
I zoomed in on this arrangement of dead trees preserved for centuries by the dry desert air in Namibia-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. I intentionally pinned the trees against a towering orange sand dune in the background, filing the image space with color and adding an element of abstraction to the composition. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/22, 5 seconds.
7. Add a human element
Although landscape photographers often go to great lengths to avoid the “hand of man” in their photos, I sometimes like to incorporate a human element into my landscape images, using a person as an artistic visual element within the overall composition. The human presence needs a purpose: to provide a sense of scale, to tell a story, to add a dash of color, or to create a point of compositional interest.
I included my fellow Shuttermonkey Zac Mills in this photo of Yasur Volcano in Vanuatu. Canon 5DIV, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 15 seconds.
8. Get close to compelling foreground elements
If you really want to wow viewers, get low and close to interesting foreground elements. When you use foreground—the stuff that is at your feet—you establish a visual relationship between the bottom of the photograph and the top, which is important in leading the viewer’s eye into the scene. Although you don’t need to include a foreground in every landscape photograph you make, you will find that foregrounds add considerable depth to your compositions, immersing your viewers in the scene. Wide-angle lenses are especially useful when shooting classic “near-far” landscape compositions, as you can get really close to a foreground element and exaggerate its importance relative to the background.
I went wide and got close to the waves crashing on the shore. I took several dozen shots as waves came in and out, until I finally got one that formed the perfect foreground shape to lead the viewer’s eye to the dramatic background scenery of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.4 seconds.
9. Make sure you get sharp near/far focus
From the days of Ansel Adams, landscape photography has been dominated by sharp focus throughout the entire image frame. A thorough understanding of plane of focus, hyperfocal distance, and depth of field will help you create stunningly sharp near/far landscape compositions. Unfortunately, these concepts are very complex, so I usually just use the following rule-of-thumb: I estimate the distance between my camera and my foreground, and then I focus on a point that is roughly twice that distance. For example, if my foreground is four feet away, I focus on a point eight feet away. Then you just need to stop down your aperture, extending your depth of field to make sure that everything from near to far in the composition is rendered acceptably sharp (f/11 or f/16 is usually perfect for most landscape scenes). Another option is to use focus stacking, which involves blending multiple exposures of the same scene each taken with the focus set to a different point, and using a computer program such as Helicon Focus to combine the images.
I got inches away with a wide-angle lens to exaggerate the size and importance of the clover in the composition, which required me to do a focus stack blend to ensure tack sharpness from near to far. Olympic National Park, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.6 seconds.
10. Feature a compelling sky
The best landscape photos aren’t usually taken on cloudless, blue sky days. Instead, make an effort to capture dramatic or interesting cloud formations. Typically, I’m not just looking to juxtapose an interesting foreground with a beautiful background—I’m also looking for clouds with interesting colors and shapes, especially when they relate to objects in my foreground. That way, I can create compelling compositions which successfully tie together foreground, background, and sky, encouraging the viewer to study all three important parts of the scene and holding their interest over time. Online weather services can help immensely when trying to predict good conditions. Satellite maps showing cloud movement over time for your local area are also very helpful. But nothing beats simply being there: trust me, once you’ve missed a few unexpected but incredible light displays, you will always make sure to be on location for every sunrise and sunset!