I shoot mostly scenic travel subject and that means I’m at the mercy of what light nature gives me. Often times the contrast is too much for film or digital sensors to handle hence my use of Graduated ND filters. HDR is also a solution if you’re shooting digital; however I have an extensive background in film so I’m still using filters to solve lighting problems.
Landscape photography is one of the most challenging forms of photography. Why? Because there are too many elements outside of your control. Unlike other types of photography (portrait, glamor, commercial, etc.,) where you can set-up the background, lighting, strobes, and direct subjects in a fully controlled environment, you have little or no control on your atmosphere when outdoors.
You can’t for example, tell the Sun to move east and below the horizon, move a mountain close to the raging river just under a lenticular cloud, change the weather, or drag the moon below the shadow of the Earth to form a lunar eclipse. You are wholly at the mercy of your environment; the photographic process is accomplished by your eyes, feet, knowledge, and complete awareness of your surroundings.
1. Use Your Eyes
You can train your eyes to compose photographically. First, know that you’re trying to communicate a message in two dimensions, so you have to learn to “see” two-dimensionally * it is up to you to place subjects, foreground, and background to give the illusion of three dimensions.
The tools for creating illusions of three-dimensional space are overlapping, changing size and placement, linear perspective, relative hue and value, and atmospheric perspective (there is too much for me to cover here in detail, I will leave it up to you to pick up a book on basic painting techniques or simply visit your local art museum and study several paintings).
Also, learn the basic rules that artists of old have used to make compositional arrangements that are pleasing to the eyes * rules of third, Golden Mean, Golden Triangles, and Golden Spiral; these are rules that the Ancient Greeks have used to make aesthetically pleasing compositions.
Once you learn the rules, learn how and when to break it effectively so that you’re not blindly limiting your own creativity through these sets of rules. **A quick trip to your local Google Search Engine will fetch several results pertaining to the rules.
2. Use Your Feet
To capture those rare and fleeting moments when light, landscape, and the living combine to reveal a photographic composition, you have to be quick on your feet. In the wild your compositional photograph doesn’t come to you, you come to it.
Your mobility combined with your eyes help you find the moment when everything in the landscape is in perfect harmony ready for you to make a still image that can be shared with everyone.
3. Improve Your Technical Knowledge
Your technical knowledge of the camera is of paramount importance when you finally have your composition to capture. You have to know things such as diffraction, depth of field, hyperfocal distance, shutter speed, aperture, Scheimpflug rule (for large format), etc., This knowledge comes with time and use with the camera set your camera on manual mode sometimes, don’t just blindly set everything on auto because you want full control of the exposure process not what the exposure computer (and it’s a sophisticated one) on your camera wants.
In outdoor photography, your knowledge of the area you’re working is significant to your success. Scout out the location first and then returns when the light is “appropriate” for your subject.
Your knowledge of light and its properties comes into play in determining what is appropriate for what subject. One of the most important books to read has nothing to do with photography: “Color and Light in Nature“, by David K. Lynch and William Livingston and “Clouds in a Glass of Beer: Simple Experiments in Atmospheric Physics“, by Craig F. Bohren.
4. Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
You must always be aware of your surroundings. Knowing where the Sun/Moon rises and sets can make or break an image * you could have easily found an excellent photographic subject and wait around for a sunset only to find out that the mountain range behind you is covering the Golden Light.
There could be a herd of rare Tule Elk slowly migrating towards the rising moon creating a unique silhouette or a field of flowers just over the hills * you must also be constantly aware because fleeting moments in nature changes in just mere minutes and seconds. An alpenglow, for example, last no more than a span of 5 minutes * I don’t know how many times I’ve missed a shot because I could not find an interesting subject to place in such an amazing display of light and color.
5. Be Quick But Slow Down
This seems like an oxymoron, but you have to be quick to capture just the right moment, but you have to really slow down to think of your composition. It’s one thing to let the shutter fly and throw a hail, Mary, thinking maybe you’ll catch something but it’s counter productive. It’s better to get one really great shot than a hundred okay ones. Use a tripod! This will force you to slow down and really think your composition before pressing the shutter.
Ansel Adams used to give his students s a cut-out viewing card for seeing the composition before setting up the camera. This is a very low-tech “tool” that is simply a card with a hole cut out in the same shape as the image format. You close one eye and view through the card and you will see the composition the way your camera would, in 2 dimensions. This method has helped me a bunch when I used to shoot 4×5 Large Format film, but it can help you too.
6. Leave No Trace
Respect, respect, respect. Know the regulations and specific concerns for the area you’ll visit. Pack it in, pack it out, take only photographs and leave nothing behind. Avoid, when possible, places where human impacts are just beginning. Preserve the past, observe but do not affect, cultural or important structures and artifacts. Watch wildlife from a distance and do not follow or approach them. Never feed wildlife, feeding animals damages their health and alters natural behaviors.