Guide to take beautiful landscape photographs like a pro
Landscape photography includes a variety of subjects, such as mountains, valleys, countryside, seascapes, forests, deserts as well as urban places. Take time to explore. Part of the joy of landscape photography is being out in nature. Wander around and get a sense of the place. Landscape photography demands time and patience to make unique and stunning photos.
There are three components to landscape photography: Light, Composition, and Camera. This guide provides a detailed understanding of each of these components to help you create artistic photos.
A. Play with light
The best lighting conditions for landscape photography are when the sun is low in the sky in the morning and in the evening. It is that much-talked-about time “golden hour” or “magic hour” when the sun is low on the horizon soaking the landscape with a golden glow. Just before sunrise and sunset are the perfect time for landscape photography.
This photo was taken just as the first sunrays hit the West Temple and Towers of Virgin at Zion National Park. The clouds provide a soft filter as well as some drama to the final image.
Urban scenes look surrealistically captivating at night as the city lights come to life. The optimum time for night time photography is just after sunset when there is still an ambient light in the sky. Cityscapes look beautiful in “blue hour” when the sun is completely gone, and the sky has turned a deep blue shape. The blue hour does not last long, the sky turns quickly black, and you have a short window to capture some great photos. The photo below was captured a few moments after the sun fell behind the mountains.
B. Learn basic rules of composition
These are actually not the rules, but guidelines to help a photographer compose a final image that is inviting and engaging.
1. Use the rule of thirds
Imagine the frame is divided into a 3×3 grid. Use the horizontal and vertical lines to position essential elements such as the horizon. Try to position points of interest where the lines intersect. Some cameras even allow you to display this grid on the back screen in live view mode.
Photos will have more energy and overall pleasing effect when main elements are placed on or around these four intersecting points. Give your subject more space on the side it is facing or moving. It is a simplified version of golden ratio.
The flower below is placed on the intersecting point and the sky is occupying the top one-third space.
2. Frame the scene
Look for elements that you can use to frame the scene to draw the eyes on your subjects. Use tree branches, building arches, windows, etc for this effect. I took this photo to emphasize distant mountains through the arch.
3. Use leading lines
Landscapes are full of linear elements— roadways, train tracks, fence rows, ridgeline, tree branches. Use these lines to lead the viewer’s eye into your picture. Leading lines are most effective as diagonals. In the example below, I used the praying flags to lead the eyes into the photo.
4. Look for symmetry
We inherently love symmetry and find it attractive. Try incorporating symmetry into your photos to produce pleasing compositions. Buildings are the manmade examples of the symmetrical forms. Nature is filled with beautiful symmetrical flowers and animals.
5. Change your perspective
Try to get a different point of view by changing your position, by walking around, by sitting low, by climbing up a little. Be experimental and find an interesting viewpoint. Look at the scene through different lenses, from wide-angle to telephoto, and think about how each lens affects it. I prefer to get down and capture interesting things, see below fluorescent plants breaking through the cracks in a lava field in Hawaii.
6. Think layers
Add layers to your composition, that is, multiple elements beyond the main subject, such as foreground and background elements. In the photo below the skeleton of a tree provides a foreground and mountains give a nice background to Mammoth Hot Springs.
7. Create a sense of scale
For a subject of indeterminate size, a mountain, a body of water, a snowscape, add a sense of scale by including something of known sizes, such as a person, a car, a tree, or an animal. The photo below exemplifies that a full appreciation of the size of mountains and lakes is possible by comparing them to the size of a human.
Break the rules
Once you understand these guidelines and their application, it is time to bring on your creativity and start developing your own style.
C. Know your camera
Photography stands on a tripod of exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity. If we compare our eye to a camera, the eye’s iris is the aperture that opens and contracts the diameter of its opening to limit the amount of light allowed on its sensor. How long your eye is open to admit the light is to shutter speed. The sensitivity of the rods and cones at the rear of the human eye is similar to the ISO.
The narrow aperture gives a deep depth of field, and this is usually used for landscape photography. A wide aperture gives a narrow depth of field, and this is used to isolate the subject, e.g., a bird, wildlife, or flower. Experiment with different apertures to understand its effects on the mood of your photos. By choosing Aperture Priority mode you can set your aperture to get the depth of field that you want, and the camera will automatically set the shutter speed.
2. Shutter speed
The shutter speed settings on your camera provide a great way to experiment with capturing motion in your landscape photography. It is especially the case with moving water, and those iconic silky waterfalls are examples of slow shutter speed.
You can also use fast shutter speeds to freeze motion. Tripod is a must to use for slow shutter speeds to prevent shake leading to a blurry photo.
ISO, which stands for the International Organization of Standards, is a measure of the sensitivity of a digital sensor to light. 100 ISO is used in normal light conditions and will give you crisp shots with little noise/grain. Higher ISO settings are used in darker situations, the quantity of grain will depend on the camera. Concerts, restaurants with dim lightings, and indoor sports events are a few examples where you will need to bump up your ISO to get sharp photos.
4. Bracket your exposures
In high contrast situations, the camera will not be able to capture details. The highlights might be blown out, or the shadows might be too dark. Bracketing your exposures is an excellent way of making sure you capture the full range of tones in the scene. Take these photos using a tripod and later merge these exposures in a photo editor. If you are taking photos with a smartphone, make sure to make your hand steady for sharp photos.
5. Invest in a quality tripod
Tripods are an essential tool to get sharp landscape photographs. A minute camera shake will destroy the sharpness of your image, as landscape photos are taken with a low aperture, i.e., high focal length. A high-quality tripod eliminates the risk of camera shake, and it is worth every penny. We have Gitzo 0531 for our backpacking trips and Manfrotto for regular use.
6. Shoot in RAW format
A RAW file is a lossless, uncompressed file containing all of the information in your photograph. These are obviously quite large in size, require Lightroom or PhotoShop to view and edit.
A JPEG file, by contrast, is a compressed version of the photograph. The camera processes the image file in the seconds after you press the shutter, throwing away quite a lot of information to compress the image file into a smaller size. With a JPEG, the camera does much of the editing for you. When it comes to choosing the format, it is simply a question of quality. If you want high-quality photographs with plenty of detail, RAW is the way to go.
I shoot all of my photographs in RAW format and do initial editing in LightRoom.
7. Give love to your camera
- Carry a good umbrella, a box of plastic bags, and perhaps a small tarp to protect your camera in rain and sandy conditions. It is okay if you get wet, but never let your camera get wet. I have dunked my favorite camera in water twice and it was a real pain to get all the moisture out. If you don’t have a waterproof case, use sealable plastic bags to keep your equipment dry.
- When shooting in below-freezing weather, it is critical to have a fully charged set of batteries, since the cold temperatures can quickly drain them. Keep your extra battery in your warm pocket and close to your body. While backpacking in colder temperatures, I put my extra batteries in gloves and keep them inside my sleeping bag.
- Change your lenses with extreme care, when shooting in snow, sleet, rain, or sand. That’s where a good little umbrella or trap and your helpful partner come handy.
- Always keep a good chamois lens cleaner with you and make sure your lens and filters are dust and moisture-free.
- Keep your memory cards in two separate ziplock bags, labeled “used” and “unused.” The last thing you want to do is lose or damage your valuable photos.
Take a look around travel stories to see more photos for inspiration.
Now, grab your camera and start your artistic journey. Just like any other art, practice is the only way to perfection. Good Luck!