Ultimate Landscapes

Five insights to enhance your scenic photographs

One morning in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I photographed this tranquil mountain scene reflected in the still waters of a small bay. I got really close with a wide-angle lens to the driftwood in the foreground in order to make it a more prominent part of the composition. I stopped down to ƒ/14 to ensure sharp near-far focus. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L. Exposure: 3.2 sec., ƒ/14, ISO 50.

What does it take to create a great landscape photo? Unfortunately, there are no secret formulas, silver bullets or paint-by-numbers approaches that will make your images rise above the rest. There are, however, some common ingredients to successful landscape photos that you can incorporate into your image-making process. In my newest ebook, The Grand Landscape, I discuss the photographic and artistic techniques for shooting sweeping, grand landscape scenes, and how you can use gear, technique, light, composition and artistic creativity to make your images stand out. Here are five of my favorite ways from the book, guaranteed to enhance the wow factor of your landscape photos.

Look for Dramatic Scenery

Picking a landscape composition begins with scene selection, and while not every landscape photo needs gorgeous scenery, it certainly can’t hurt! Before I travel to a new photo location, I start with online research to get a feel for the place. Although I’m not looking to copy the work of others, I do at least want to get a general idea of what to expect. I’ll also consult guidebooks, maps and Google Earth to get a better sense of my options.

Once I’ve picked a general area, then it’s all boots on the ground. I extensively explore the location, trying to find interesting subjects. I almost always prefer to get away from the road as much as possible to find unique perspectives, as most photographers rarely shoot more than a few feet from their car. You don’t need to go deep into the wilderness to find unique compositions, but you should at least expect to stretch your legs some and be willing to work a bit for your shots.

When I’m exploring, I’m not just looking for stunning scenery—I’m also looking to create a sense of place, which is best approached by simply asking the following questions: What is it about the scenery that I find inspiring or appealing? What seems unique to me? What can be found here that can’t be found anywhere else? Which features of the landscape tell its stories best? The answers to these questions help me decide which visual elements to include in my compositions.

For this photo of an aurora borealis display over the eastern fjords of Iceland, I chose a foreground that would complement the ring shape of the aurora in the sky above. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 15-30mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD. Exposure: 30 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 800.

Include a Leading Foreground

A good landscape photo typically has a prominent foreground feature that leads the viewer’s eye deeper into the scene. So, when scouting for locations, I’m not just looking for stunning scenery. Instead, I’m looking to find a combination of visual elements that work together to form a pleasing and compelling composition. This usually means I’m looking for an interesting foreground to compose against a stunning background.

When you use foreground—the stuff that’s at your feet—you establish a visual relationship between the bottom of the photograph and the top, which is important in leading the viewer’s eye into the scene. Although you don’t need to include a foreground in every landscape photograph you make, you’ll find that foregrounds add considerable depth to your compositions, immersing your viewers in the scene. Don’t be afraid to get really close to your foreground, as doing so exaggerates its importance, especially when you’re using a wide-angle lens (this is known as perspective distortion). I often like to fill the bottom part of the image frame with my foreground, getting only a few feet away in order to take maximum advantage of the perspective distortion effect.

While photographing in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, I selected the line of a dune crest to lead the eye to the mountains and dramatic stormy sky in the background. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, AF-S FX NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED, Canon adapter. Exposure: 1/10 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 100.

Make Sure You Get Sharp Near-Far Focus

From the days of Ansel Adams, landscape photography has been dominated by sharp focus throughout the entire image frame. A thorough understanding of plane of focus, hyperfocal distance and depth of field will help you create stunningly sharp near-far landscape compositions. Unfortunately, these concepts are very complex, and I could easily take up several dozen pages with detailed discussion including graphs and charts to ensure adequate and accurate treatment—and you’d probably still end up somewhat confused!

Fortunately, you can rely on the following rule of thumb, which I use for most of my wide-angle, near-far-style landscape compositions: I estimate the distance between my camera and my foreground, and then I focus on a point that’s roughly twice that distance. For example, if my foreground is four feet away, I focus on a point eight feet away. This simple formula will help you optimize your depth of field, which is the zone of apparent sharpness that extends both in front of and behind your chosen focus point. Then you just need to stop down your aperture, extending your depth of field to make sure that everything from near to far in the composition is rendered acceptably sharp. When working with a wide-angle lens, I find that ƒ/11 is usually sufficient for getting everything sharp from a few feet away all the way to the background. With extreme near-far compositions, I’ll stop down even more (although I avoid my lens’ smallest apertures, if possible, because of diffraction, an optical effect that occurs when using small apertures, which reduces overall image sharpness).

Here, I used the shadow of a dead tree in Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft National Park as my foreground, drawing the viewer deeper into the scene and enhancing overall visual interest. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L USM. Exposure: 1/125 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 100.

Capture Favorable Color and Light

Once I find an interesting composition, I’ll make sure to be at that location at sunrise or sunset, hoping to capture incredible light and color to bring the scene to its fullest potential. During these so-called “magic hours,” the sun is low on the horizon and filtered through atmospheric particles that scatter blue light and allow warm light (such as red, orange and yellow) to pass through. When this warm light strikes clouds and the landscape, the results can be magical—hence, the name.

Of course, the magic hours aren’t the only good light for landscape photography. Overcast light works well for waterfall photography, and bright sunny light at midday is best for getting strong reflected light deep within shadowed slot canyons in the desert, creating a wonderful glow, but if you really want to excel as a landscape photographer, twilight, sunrise and sunset are typically your best times for capturing stunning color and light. Don’t expect a lot of sleep!

Feature a Compelling Sky

The best landscape photos aren’t usually taken on cloudless, blue sky days. Instead, make an effort to capture dramatic or interesting cloud formations. Typically, I’m not just looking to juxtapose an interesting foreground with a beautiful background—I’m also looking for clouds with interesting colors and shapes, especially when they relate to objects in my foreground. That way, I can create compelling compositions that successfully tie together foreground, background and sky, encouraging the viewer to study all three important parts of the scene and holding their interest over time.

I selected a foreground with an appealing shape—a curve in a small stream with interesting ice formations—to create a composition that would lead the viewer’s eye deeper into this scene taken in Banff National Park, Canada. The rising sun found a crack in the clouds, adding much needed color to the composition. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L. Exposure: 1/8 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 100.

Too few clouds are simply not all that interesting for most landscape scenes. Too many clouds, on the other hand, block the light. Somewhere in between is usually best, and partly to mostly cloudy skies generally give you the best chance of getting colorful sunsets and sunrises. When you have distinct clouds with texture and separation, light can break through the gaps to produce stunning results, even when cloud cover is significant. “Flat” clouds with little or no texture or breaks, on the other hand, usually don’t catch the light all that well, and tend not to be interesting. When the clouds light up brightly enough, they will act like giant reflectors and bounce light onto the landscape itself. Often, the best time to catch great light is when a storm is clearing at sunrise or sunset—storm clouds are often very large, dramatic and photogenic, and can transform even a midday landscape scene into something compelling.

I spent several days on foot scouting the Campo Piedra Pómez, a massive pumice stone field located in the Puna de Atacama region of Argentina. Once I identified a few promising compositions, I made sure to be on location at sunrise and sunset, hoping for some great light. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/4L IS USM. Exposure: 0.8 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 100.

Online weather services can help immensely when trying to predict good conditions. Satellite maps showing cloud movement over time for your local area are also very helpful. There’s even an interesting app for photographers called Skyfire (skyfireapp.com), which aims to predict where and when great sunrises and sunsets will occur, but nothing beats simply being there. If you really want to get great light, you need to be on location as much as possible, even (especially) when conditions look bleak. Weather and clouds are often unpredictable, especially in the kinds of locations where dramatic landscape scenery is found (such as mountains, for example, which have a tendency to make their own weather). Trust me, once you’ve missed a few unexpected, but incredible light displays, you’ll always make sure to be on location for every sunrise and sunset!

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking involves blending multiple exposures of the same scene, each taken with the focus set to a different point, and using a computer program such as Adobe Photoshop (or a dedicated focus-stacking program such as Helicon Focus) to combine the images. With focus stacking, you no longer have to rely on small, diffraction-limited apertures to get sufficient depth of field for near-far landscape scenes. Instead, you can achieve exceptional near-far focus exceeding what you can get using depth of field alone.

The process is fairly easy. After composing your image, make a series of photos, starting by focusing on the closest part of the scene, making small focus adjustments until you get to the background (typically, five to seven images will be sufficient, although some extreme compositions may require more). In Photoshop, load all of the images as layers into a single image by going to File > Automate > Photomerge. Select the image files you want to stack, select Auto for layout, and make sure that none of the boxes at the bottom is checked.

After pressing OK, Photoshop will align the photos and put them into a new image as layers. Next, select all of the layers in the new image, and go to Edit > Auto Blend Layers. In the Auto-Blend Images dialog box, select Stack Images. Photoshop will automatically blend the sharpest parts of each image. Note that although focus stacking works well most of the time, sometimes with complex scenes you’ll have to do some creative editing and cropping to achieve a seamless blend.

Professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to several leading photo magazines and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. You can see more of his work at ianplant.com.