20 Top Landscape Tips

Learn to capture what moves you in the landscape with the insights of veteran scenic masters

20 Top Landscape Tips Inspired by the vast vistas of the West and the intimate settings of the East, photographers from across the Americas and beyond have given us remarkable photographs that capture the natural world in its seemingly endless variations. Landscape photography is the bedrock of Outdoor Photographer. We've asked some of those photographers whose work has stood apart from the crowd to share with us the techniques that have helped them distill the complexities of the wild outdoors into the iconic images that have graced our pages these last 20 years. With these tips and a stroke of luck, perhaps it will be your images and insights that we share with readers in the years to come.

1. Beware The Exposure Danger Zone
Perfect reflections are appealing subjects, but beware: exposing reflections perfectly is tricky. The amount of light reflected from the water depends dramatically on the angle at which the light strikes the water. If the light from the subject strikes the water at a shallow angle, most of it's reflected, and the difference in exposure between the subject and its reflection may be only a half-stop. But if the light from the subject is plunging steeply into the water, most of it's absorbed, and the difference in exposure between the subject and its reflection can be four stops or more. Film and consumer-grade digital sensors can only record a range of light intensities of about five stops from near-black to near-white. They can only record about three stops with good color and detail.

To record pleasing detail in all parts of the frame, use your built-in spot meter to measure the difference in stops between your subject and its reflection. Then choose a graduated neutral-density filter with a strength equal to or slightly less than the metered difference. No time to spot-meter? Use these rules of thumb: With a 50mm lens or longer, use a one-stop filter or none at all; with a 28mm or 35mm lens, use a two-stop filter; with a 24mm lens or wider, use a three-stop filter.

—Glenn Randall

2. Balanced Exposures
I do a lot of nautically related work, scenics with mountains, bays and harbor from deck level and higher. One of the most important filters to use for this type of work is the graduated neutral-density filter. I use a 25% density, screw-mount B+W filter. The effect this filter has on a sky with any cloud in it at all is magical and subtle, but it enhances the clouds quite beautifully. The widest lens I use it on is a 16-35mm, and with the thinner version of this filter, vignetting is almost negligible. It’s a filter I leave on my 24-28mm and 16-35mm lenses 95% of the time.
—Onne van der Wal

3. Shoot Differently
We often see the same shots taken over and over at famous locations. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that there’s a lack of genuine creativity in photography today, but we can change that! Skip the popular, cliched locations, or if you must visit them, take the shot that everyone else is taking and then move on and really explore the place. Seek out alternative perspectives on familiar subjects, or better yet, discover new locations all your own. This will help you cultivate your own personal vision, and your photography will be better for it.
—Carr Clifton

4. Check Your Histogram
Using a digital camera, you have the ability to check your exposures on the spot. Always check the histogram on your camera after each shot. If you find an image has been over- or underexposed, you can make a subsequent exposure immediately to get it right.

If you see a histogram hit the wall to the left, you've underexposed and are missing shadow detail. If you see a histogram hit the wall to the right, you've overexposed and are missing highlight detail. If you see a histogram that hits the wall to both the left and right, you've run into a scene that exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Rather than making a sacrifice at one end of the tonal scale or the other, you can make two exposures, one with good shadow detail and one with good highlight detail, and combine them into a single image with excellent detail at both ends of the tonal scale. The Zone System mantra is "Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights." Because the medium of photography continues to evolve, this needs updating: "Expose for the shadows and expose for the highlights."

—John Paul Caponigro

5. Silver Lining Revealed!
A day graced with light cloud cover is undoubtedly my favorite time for photographing the pastel colors of an Appalachian spring. The gray clouds serve as a giant diffuser, creating an even dispersion to the light. Little or no contrast is evident and the subtle hues of spring become more saturated. My camera is always attached to a tripod, and to accentuate the colors and reduce reflections, I use a polarizer on my telephoto zoom. (My tendency is to go for optical extractions instead of always using a wide-angle focal length.) I instinctively do both vertical and horizontal compositions, and I avoid including too much
of the sky in the picture.
—Jim Clark

6. Wink It
I close one eye on every view before I even take out a camera. Closing one eye takes away our sense of depth, which comes from seeing an object with two eyes, and offers us a perspective on what apparent depth will show up on film.
—Carl Heilman II

7. Find The Best Alternative
We can't control the conditions that affect our photo opportunities. When the quality of light, weather or sky isn't right for the shot you hoped to capture, concentrate on the subtler details of your surroundings—things like rock patterns, plant life or other microcosms of the landscape. Keep an eye out for unexpected wildlife or any other detail that you might otherwise overlook when focused on the "big picture." Sometimes, the little details make for more exciting images than those we sought initially. Open yourself up to the alternatives rather than calling it quits, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
—Tom Blagden

8. Right Tool For The Job
I choose a film based on my needs. I use Fujichrome Provia 100 for night shots, for example, and Kodak Ektachrome 100VS for day work. The Provia has good characteristics for nighttime work because it has very little reciprocity failure and very little color shift during long exposures. If I'm recording star trails, I might have the shutter open for an hour or even longer. The extra punch of Ektachrome 100VS enhances my daylight work by saturating colors that might be washed out under the bright sun.
—Michael Frye

9. Make A Personal Connection
You don't need to have a spectacular subject to make a spectacular photograph. No amount of hiking, driving, climbing or otherwise will make your picture better. Great pictures happen because of careful observation, and more often than not, an intimate knowledge of the subject. Anything, even the most ordinary backyard event, will produce an image of significance if the observation is truly insightful and captures a sense of the moment. Really understanding and using the available light is critical to this process as well. The use of the light is essential to the color and power of the image.
—Robert Glenn Ketchum

10. Tune In
When arriving at your location, especially if it's an unfamiliar place, leave your camera aside for half an hour or so. Take a short walk, sit down and rest or otherwise contemplate the landscape around you. Carry a notebook with you and write down words that describe how you feel in that place or words that describe the location. Let all your senses work for you. Examples might include peaceful, magical, energized, awesome or nostalgic. Then consider how you might photograph the landscape before you so that it reflects your mood or the mood of the landscape. Now pick up your camera and venture forth! Practice tuning in and I think you'll start making more creative and personal images.
—William Neill

11. Shoot Steady
I've always advocated the use of tripods. A tripod ensures that you're more careful about your composition. It's not just a matter of handholding and getting the image sharp throughout. I consider the tripod as something to be used regardless of stability. It slows you down and forces you to look more carefully at a scene.
—Art Wolfe

12. Take A Closer Look
You can find interesting compositions even in mostly barren landscapes when you change your perspective. This image was made in the desert bordering Namibia and South Africa, where no vegetation rises more than about five inches from the ground. Using my elbows as an impromptu tripod, I moved low to the ground and up close to this succulent with a Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle lens. The combination of my position and the lens' angle of view makes the subject appear much larger and dominant in the scene. I used a polarizer to enhance the sky.
—Frans Lanting

13. Compose With Care
We're responsible for everything that's included within the frame and everything that's not. One of the most important perceptual skills to acquire is the ability to think both within and out of the frame. Many photographers spend a great deal of time learning to make a finished composition with the borders of the viewfinder. Later, they may develop the ability to see ways to refine their compositions by eliminating elements after exposure through cropping. It's essential to learn to see outside of the frame.

Knowing that you can combine multiple exposures into a single image when working digitally, it becomes equally important to learn to see outside of the frame and beyond the proportions of the camera you're using. For instance, you now can produce panoramas with a standard camera by combining multiple exposures. Compose mentally. Get the information you need for the composition by any means necessary. Crop and composite as needed. First, we learn to think inside the box; next, we learn to think outside of the box. Today, we have to ask ourselves, Do we crop or retouch in order to make the most graphically compelling image?

—John Paul Caponigro

14. Think Outside The Medium
I think of my frame as a canvas and use this approach in my workshops. Many students look at the subject they're trying to photograph and forget about everything else. In reviewing their work, I ask, Would you paint this scene this way? It gets them to look at the whole frame and start using what I like to call "big-picture thinking."
—Mark Edward Harris

15. Less Is More
Compose simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in, move in or otherwise find a position for your camera that gets around the fluff. The process of simplifying your composition will require you to decide what's most important in a given composition. The process also requires that you look carefully in your viewfinder for extraneous information behind, in front of and around your subject. The edges of your frame are easy to neglect, but when you're in the habit of looking along the edges, your compositions will be much cleaner.
—William Neill

16. Cover Your Ground—Foreground, Middle Ground & Background
During the 20 years I've been teaching landscape photography workshops, the one technique that most of the participants seem to have taken with them is the compositional technique I refer to as "foreground, middle ground and background." The basic premise is to accentuate an illusion of three-dimensionality by creating a distinct tripartite structure, separating the foreground from the middle ground and from a distinct background. The key is the middle ground that connects the foreground with the background, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional scene.

A sunrise scene that I photographed in the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado is an example of the tripartite technique. The foreground boulders and rocks have a distinct structure from the middle ground aspen grove, which in turn has a distinct structure from the background mountain range and sky. The separation is further accentuated by sunlight on the background only. The three zones also have distinct colors that further separate them from each other. The end result is a composition that leads the viewer from the foreground to the background connected through the middle ground aspen grove.

—Willard Clay

17. Keeping Gear Clean And Dry
I'm often asked how I keep my gear dry while shooting in a nautical environment. One is guaranteed to get some fine spray on the front element of the lens, and the best way to remove this is by using an old, well-used, but clean diaper. The cotton of these old diapers is so absorbent after countless washes that it absorbs all the sea spray without leaving any residue or smears. Any diaper service will sell you a bag-load of old diapers for about $10. They're also a great way to wipe down gear after a shoot and to pad lenses and bodies in transit. Don't leave home without your diapers!
—Onne van der Wal

18. Don't Confuse The Subject With The Photograph
Whenever a subject appeals to us, grabs our attention, drives us to make that all-important decision to stop and photograph, we need to remember that this subject and the photograph we make of it are two completely different things. Subject matter is only the starting point. What you make of it is what counts, and mostly, that depends on how you arrange it in the frame of your photograph. The trap that many nature photographers fall into is being "blinded" by their subject matter. We find a subject that speaks to us and we decide to "get" it, capture it and bring it home. When a remarkable scene confronts a photographer, the challenge is to truly "see" that scene and then organize it in a meaningful and hopefully unforgettable way. This organizing of elements into a rectangle is the ultimate challenge all photographers face, and the first hurdle is understanding that this is our real task. The composition is how we make a photograph of a given subject our own.

For me, the best way to do this is to bracket my compositions; that's how I work my subject. I like to challenge myself to see how many different ways I can compose each new situation that catches my eye. If you limit yourself to the first composition that comes to mind, you'll very likely be stuck with something "obvious." The important question to ask yourself as you wrestle with a composition is, What attracted me to this scene in the first place? Strong composition will make the answer obvious to the viewer—so clear to the viewer, in fact, that he or she simply can't miss it. The last thing you want is for viewers to look at an image and ask themselves, Why?

—Linde Waidhofer

19. Be Persistent
The world outdoors is unpredictable, and so it's often true that capturing the images we're after requires dedication and persistence, despite the apparent obstacles. I'm reminded of a time when I was working for a travel company that needed several images from different tourist areas in Argentina. I was especially excited about one of the locations, Iguazu Falls. I arrived to unrelenting rain, and after three days of walking miles of loops, drenched beneath an umbrella with my time running short, I began to consider abandoning the falls in search of another subject under the protective canopy of the rain forest. Late in the afternoon at the hotel garden, I happened to notice a tinge of sunlight on my subject. I immediately called for a taxi, barely beat the closing gates to the park and ran my fastest to a location I had previously scouted. The moment I arrived, it finally happened—the rain subsided just long enough for the clouds to pick up the pink hues of the setting sun.
—Londie Padelsky

20. Get Away From Your Car And Explore
I've always found that driving a car around to scenic viewpoints and planting a tripod in the holes left by the previous photographer is a surefire way to come home with a collection of mediocre postcard shots. Even if you've learned all of the necessary technical skills from this magazine and how-to books, unless you venture out onto the land, you stand the chance of making clichéd or redundant images. I'm not saying you need to embark on extreme adventures a` la Galen Rowell, but it's necessary to spend enough time on the trail or in a canoe to let the spirit of the landscape seep into your heart and soul. Great nature photographers do more than merely master ƒ-stops and filters—they connect with their subjects in a way that only comes about from being immersed in a place, experiencing it with all five senses. Since most days are full of several hours of mediocre light, you might as well spend that time exploring the forest, desert or mountains, and learning the details of a place that will inspire you to make meaningful, relevant and creative images.
—Jerry Monkman


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