There are few subjects more impressive and inspiring than a wide, sweeping landscape. When you’re still getting a feel for the genre, it often seems that the images you produce aren’t as striking as you remember the scene in your mind’s eye.
As a result, photographers are constantly on the hunt for tips and tricks to help them elevate their images to the next level, but they rapidly discover a problem: there’s a lot of different advice out there about how to compose landscape photographs, and unfortunately for everyone, a lot of it is bad advice.
To help fight that, we’ve put together our top 5 tips for taking striking landscape photos.
If you can master these, you’ll be well on your way to giving Ansel Adams a run for his money.
Pay attention to compositional lines
When you’re looking through the viewfinder, be sure to take your time. In most landscape photography, you have a least a minute or two to review your composition and tweak it for maximum effect.
Even if the light is fading quickly or a particular cloud formation is shifting, paying attention to the compositional lines in your image can make a huge difference in the final result.
In case you’re not clear on the concept, “compositional lines” refer to the way that your eye moves through and across an image. A winding road, a shoreline or even the repetition of a shape can all draw the eye through an image in a particular way.
The areas where lines intersect can deflect the eye’s movement towards a specific part of the image, and the more you make use of these in your compositions the more striking and dynamic your final images will be.
Balance interest in the foreground and background
Another important element of a dynamic photo is that there is visual interest throughout the composition. In landscape photography, our attention is usually captivated by a wide vista, but this can often create an unexpectedly static photo.
Multiple points of interest in both the foreground and the background help the eye to move through the photo and creates a more striking image.
It’s helpful to use a wide-angle lens for this as they obviously allow you to capture a larger portion of a scene, but even if you’re shooting with a standard or telephoto lens, balancing the various areas of the scene can improve your photos dramatically.
Avoid a balanced horizon (usually)
This is another one of those tips that isn’t a hard and fast rule.
Most aspiring photographers are familiar with the Rule of Thirds, which suggests placing the main subject of your image at one of the four intersection points created by dividing the width and height of your image into thirds.
While it’s not easy to directly apply this guideline to landscape photography, it’s often a good idea to choose whether to emphasize the ground or the sky by placing the horizon line at either the upper third or lower third of the image.
Once you’re aware of how that changes an image, you can start to appreciate the value of a balanced horizon.
It creates a more visually static image, but when used in the right scene it can make a photo every bit as striking as a more dynamic composition.
Try a graduated/split neutral density filter
Most landscape shots include at least some elements of sky, and this can create an extremely wide range of possible exposure values. If you expose for the bright sky, you may lose some detail in the darker areas of the landforms, and if you expose for the land, your sky may lose some detail in the highlights.
You can overcome this by combining various exposures into a high dynamic range image, but that can take a great deal of time and isn’t a good option for scenes with any motion. Instead, try using a split or graduated neutral-density filter.
Neutral-density or ND filters limit the amount of light that reaches your sensor through the lens without shifting the colour balance, and they are available in a variety of different density levels from f/1 to f16.
A ‘split’ or graduated ND filter only has the treatment applied to a portion of the glass, allowing you to control which aspects of the scene are affected. Adjusting it to ensure that the sky is slightly darkened will allow you to expose for the landforms yet still capture the most detail throughout the entire scene.
Know when to break the “rules”
Photography writers often talk about composition rules, but not all photography writers are actually photographers. In fact, most experienced photographers know that rules are really just guidelines, and use them only when it suits their purposes.
There is something to be said for understanding the guidelines and why they’ve become popular, but the best part of learning them is so that you know when it’s useful to break them.
Yes, even the tips in this article are worth breaking every once in a while, as long as you do it on purpose!
For example, the earlier tip about balancing visual interest foreground and background can be turned on its ear by finding a single striking object and isolating it against a lonely and barren background. Even the value of a neutral-density filter can be removed if you are aiming to create a high-contrast atmosphere. It all comes down to your intent.
Bonus tip: Timing
One of the most overlooked aspects of landscape photography is just how much a scene can change over the course of a day, month or even an entire year.
While it’s not always an option to spend an entire day capturing a single photograph, taking the time to envision how a scene would appear at different points in time can help you plan out your shoot schedule.
Plus, it can give you a great excuse to return to a particularly beautiful location multiple times. A scene that’s already beautiful may turn into something truly transcendent at another point in the year.