If you’ve ever had to look through a friend’s vacation pictures, you likely already know that landscape photography can be incredibly boring. Out in the world are too many indistinguishable photographs of well-known landscapes: mesas in the American southwest, the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco skyline, any waterfall – you get the idea. As a photography instructor (okay, my dad) once told me, “You’re not Ansel Adams, so don’t try to be him.” Harsh, but correct. As soon as I realized I needed to find a different way of approaching landscapes, my landscape photography improved dramatically. Here are ten tips to help you take your own landscape images to the next level.
1. Avoid a flat, boring landscape
While any type of landscape that you find interesting has the potential to be a good photograph, this is not true of every landscape at every time of day. Imagine an early afternoon during which you come across a massive field of poppies, complete with snow-capped mountains in the background. The scene is gorgeous, but when you snap the photograph, the result is flat and underwhelming. You return to the poppy field a few hours later, when the slowly setting sun is reflecting beautifully off the tips of the orange flowers. You snap another photo and the result is entirely different. This time, the colors are much more vibrant, and the highlights from the setting sun have provided a unique element to your photo. Sometimes, the key to a great landscape photo is waiting for the right time of day, and the right kind of lighting.
2. Add a surprise element to your landscape
Add a surprise element to your landscape, such as an elongated shadow in your photo of a sun setting over the ocean. Not every landscape photo need be devoid of everything but natural elements, so be creative and keep your eyes open for unique opportunities.
3. Focus on nearer images and blur out the background
Using a shallower depth of field (DOF) to essentially blur out the background of your image might seem opposite of what most obviously characterizes landscape photography, but doing so can also create a far more interesting photograph. Think of the flat-topped mesas in the American southwest. We all know what they look like, because we’ve all seen a million photos of them. If you were to use a shallower DOF to shoot a cluster of wildflowers, your resulting photograph would be focused wildflowers in the foreground, and the blurred – yet unmistakeable – shape of the beautiful mesas in the background.
4. Incorporate man-made structures
It’s easy to forget that there is nothing in the Landscape Photography Rulebook that says we are only allowed to use natural environments in our landscape photos. Therefore, break the mold and incorporate some man-made structures to contrast with the natural landscape: a wooden dock in your waterscape, a rusted bus in the overgrown meadow, or a tent in front of a mountain range.
5. Strive for an unconventional view
If time and resources allow, think of unconventional ways in which you can photograph conventional scenery. For example, a coastline sure looks different from the air than it does from a boat or from the ground. The waves of sand dunes in the Namib desert look different photographed from a dune’s highest point than they do photographed from the dune’s lowest point. Once you find a landscape that interests you, walk around and look from different angles and viewpoints. By doing so, you’re likely to find a unique way of looking at something otherwise seen a hundred times before.
6. Experiment with different lenses
Traditional wide-angle lenses may be considered the go-to for landscape photography, but shouldn’t be considered your only option. A 70-200mm is a flexible choice of lens because it has the ability to go to from short to full telephoto and can capture the smaller details of a landscape. To really switch it up, experiment with a fish-eye lens. Especially effective for special effects photography, this ultra-wide angle lens will distort any line not running through the center of the lens.
7. Look for natural elements of composition
Natural elements of composition, such as an s-curve (a road traveling up a hill, a stream meandering through a forest landscape), receding lines (eroded rocks of a coastline), or layers (a field of poppies below a mountain range below a clear blue sky). Elements such as these are pleasing to the eye, and will draw your viewer right into your photograph.
8. Photograph contrasts
Contrasts can add some interesting commentary to a landscape photograph. For example, a photo of a rusted bus abandoned in a pristine Alaskan meadow incites all kinds of interesting questions. Identifying contrasts are also a useful way to photograph cityscapes in a style other than the traditional skyline. For example, if you are wandering through London, a photograph of an old, 17th century building next to a modern high-rise is a unique, but no less fascinating, way to capture a cityscape.
9. Use the sky to your advantage
This so-called “negative space” is a great tool to use when shooting landscapes. The sky can further define a skyline in a cityscape, add another layer to your photograph (see tip #7), or reflect off of buildings or glassy-topped lakes. Be creative and experiment.
10. Convert your photo to black and white
Most landscapes are published in color for the purpose of capturing the vibrancy of a scene. But if your photograph has a unique composition, includes interesting shapes, or is dependent upon the use of shadows, consider converting it into black and white. While some default conversions can be lackluster, you can easily adjust tones to improve the final product. If appropriate for the subject, you can also try converting your image into a “sepia” or “antique.” Though this is much less traditional, and is rarely seen amongst professionally published landscapes, an “antiqued” photo done correctly can be very eye-catching.
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