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6 Simple Steps to Improve Your Landscape Photography

Fading sunlight warms the red rock formations common in the Leslie Gulch region located in remote Eastern Oregon.

A Beginner’s Guide to Improving Landscape Photography

Have you ever looked at a landscape photographer’s website or social media page and wondered how they get all of those beautiful landscape photos? Do you ever secretly wish you could add some pizazz to your photos too? Good news! It’s not really as hard as you may think. There are some very simple methods you can use to improve your landscape photography without spending a fortune to upgrade your camera gear.

 

Step 1 – Slow Down

The very first thing you need to do is slow down and really learn how to see a landscape. We all experience that “ooh-aah” moment when we see a beautiful landscape, but what is it really that your eye is attracted to? Human brains are wired in ways that allow us to instantly soak in the beauty while at the same time cutting out the distracting clutter. It happens automatically when you look at a landscape in real life. Unfortunately, no matter how fancy your camera is, it will not make not same distinctions your eye does. It will capture everything, both beautiful and distracting.

Often, it’s later when you’re back home looking at your photos on the computer that you will start to notice the distractions in your image. It is for this reason that I say to slow down. Take a deep breath and get to know your landscape. You can’t possibly take your best photo if you simply pull the car over, open the door, snap the photo, toss the camera back into the car and zoom off. That method rarely works for me and your image will lack feeling.

Step 2 – Compose Your Image With Care

When you look at a landscape, conscientiously make note of the most interesting elements in the scene. What is it that initially attracted your attention? What do you want to emphasize? Once you have identified your most important element, it’s time to get to work on the composition.

Take the time to move around with your camera. Move closer, stand back, try stepping to the left or to the right. Zoom in or zoom out while keeping an eye on your main element.

Try moving your camera up or down. Most people take photos from eye level. Changing the height that a photo is taken offers a fresh, often unexpected point of view. Positioning your camera lower to the ground can draw the viewer’s attention from a flower in the foreground to a grand vista beyond. A point of view from above can open up a foreground allowing you to add depth down into things that might be hidden at eye level. I often stand in the back of my pickup to change my perspective. If that’s not an option, perhaps a rock or log will suffice. Notice how the image in the viewfinder changes as your camera position changes. During the learning phase, it’s helpful to go ahead and take sample images from each position for comparison later.

203 Pond, Baker County, Oregon. A beautiful sunrise at the local fishing hole.

Step 3 – House Keeping – Get Rid of Distractions

Now that you have considered what you want in the image, you must also consider what you want to leave out of the image. It’s time to fine-tune the composition by noticing what elements are creating a distraction. Is there something that is pulling your eye away from your main feature? It could be a reflection off a soda can or a piece of garbage under a bush. A distraction can also be natural things like a stray branch reaching into the scene from the side of the viewfinder or a distracting clump of grass that catches your eye.

Cleaning up while at the scene is much easier than cleaning up later in the editing process. Now you can see why I call this ‘House Keeping’.

Step 4 – Experiment with Exposure

This post will not be an explanation of how to manually expose your images. I will save that for another day. But no matter how you shoot, either manual or by your camera’s program, take some shots lighter and some shots darker. A darker exposure often adds pizazz to the sky, but you have to be careful that your foreground does not become too dark. There is a fine line between the light and dark zones and only by bracketing your exposures up and down will you be able to see the difference.

One piece of equipment that is really beneficial here is a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter fits on the end of your lens. You simply adjust the filter by twisting it clockwise or counter clockwise. A polarizer is most effective at 90° angles to the sun. As you twist the outer ring of the polarizer, you can see the hazy, overly bright sky turn blue again as the polarizer removes glare from the scene. It can also be used to eliminate or enhance reflections on water or foliage.

A Polarizing filter removes glare from blue skies.

If you have a DSLR camera with detachable lenses, you have the ability to attach a polarizer to the threads on the end of the lens. Unfortunately, most point-and-shoot cameras and cell phones that I know of don’t have the threads on the end of the lens to hold a polarizer. That said, there are some point-and-shoot cameras models that have an add-on adapter which can be purchased separately. It is well worth the investment if your camera has this ability.  B and H Photo is a great source for hard to find adapters as well as a full line of polarizing filters.

Step 5 – Imagine the Scene’s Potential

For me, this is a critical step. Imagine what your scene will look like at sunrise or sunset. What if it was a stormy day with dramatic clouds in the background? What about a springtime shot with wildflowers in it, or a beautiful winter landscape? Many locations look spectacular in all the seasons and at different times of the day. One thing I can tell you is that the most boring light often happens during the middle of the day, which is when most people are out taking photos. Time your visit when you have a much better chance of capturing a gorgeous sky full of color or the dramatic sky during stormy weather. This one step alone will greatly improve your images.

As I travel and explore, I keep a list of potential images that I want to return to and photograph. I use a journaling app on my iPhone called Day One, $4.99 in the iTunes App Store. It allows me to snap an iPhone photo, locate it, make notes, set up reminders, etcetera. My notes might include things like the landowner’s name and contact information, dates, or seasons in which I might like to return to the location. It’s pretty useful. I would imagine that there are plenty of great options in the app stores.

I am also very fond of an app called Sky Guide, $2.99. It’s simple to operate and it’s just plain fun, whether you’re a photographer or not. You can view the stars and constellations from your location. You can also add a feature to show the satellites. I enjoy being able to see the International Space Station fly over. But Sky Guide is more than fun; it’s very useful as well. By simply changing the date, it will show you the location of the sun or moon helping you plan the perfect time for a return trip. There are other more technical apps for charting the sky, but Sky Guide is by far the simplest and most fun!

Step 6 – Review & Learn

Now that you’re home and have uploaded your images on the computer, take a moment to scrutinize your images. Which ones worked and which ones have distracting elements? When you experiment with composition and camera positions, you may be surprised to discover that you have more than one successful image. This final step is very important. By reviewing your work, you can learn to avoid mistakes and enhance the positives on future photo adventures. Now get out there and explore!

You might also like: The Terroir of Photography.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent advice for any landscape photographer! You really hit some key points here – slowing down, looking at various perspectives, and “house keeping” (great term, by the way). These are the kinds of things that elevate photographic results above the drive-by-and-take-a snapshot method.

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