Three Tips For Better Landscapes

I learned a lot about landscape photography the hard way. It all began with a three week trip to western US from my apartment in Queens, NY. With each new state’s border behind me, I envisioned magnificent mountain and seascapes filling my portfolio. How could I miss with where I was headed? I spent three weeks shooting slide after slide and another anxious week waiting for the images to be returned from Kodak. My anxious anticipation turned to dismay as I continued to pour through every box. Not one image made me say WOW. Given the locations I photographed, how come my photos didn’t have the “look” of the pictures that made me head there in the first place? There was a silver lining to my predicament. It stemmed from the fact I was now motivated to discover my short comings. Below are three tips so you don’t perform my same atrocities.

Less is More. In my early attempts, I included way too much. Vast amounts of image real estate was wasted with way too much sky. If the sky is not dynamic, minimize or totally eliminate it from the composition. The same holds true for boring foregrounds. Not every landscape has to be shot with a wide angle. Sometimes the scene within the scene nets a better image. Be sure the smaller slice provides a sense of place.

Avoid clutter and rubble. Include a strong foreground to help make a good landscape great. If the foreground is not clean, look for a different one. Look for flowers that are in peak bloom, a rock that mimics the background, some pristine snow, or other subject that complements the rest of the image.

Backgrounds: What’s behind your subject is equally as important as the subject itself. A great subject offset against a distracting background nets an image with too many distractions. Find a great subject and move around until the background works.

Create Depth: Include a foreground to give the image a three dimensional quality. With the use of a wide angle lens, the closer the foreground is to the front element, the greater its apparent size. Depth of field is more critical when a foreground object is included so stop the lens down to achieve foreground to background focus. If necessary, focus at the hyper-focal distance. Loosely translated, place the focus point one third into the frame. Another way to create depth is to play shadows and highlights off each other. A brightly lit main subject offset against a dark background gives a three dimensional impression. Strong sidelight conveys this quality. At sunrise and sunset, this effect can be more easily applied. With midday sun directly overhead, shadows fall underneath the subject rather than to the side whereas early and late in the day, the sun is lower on the horizon which creates sidelight. Lastly, take advantage of how fog creates implied depth. Foreground objects stand out while background ones recede into the fog.

Panorama/Combine: Panoramas have become very popular. Some newer cameras offer a feature called Sweep Panning. This allows the photographer to hold his or her finger on the shutter while panning across the scene. The camera automatically stitches the pics into a pano. Many image processing programs offer stitching capability. When you create a pano, it’s best to use manual metering, a fixed white balance, no filters, a cable release, and manual focus. The reason is variations among the frames can confuse the software which results in a panorama with panels that vary in exposure, tone, color or focus.

Incorporating any of these tips into your repertoire will help you create better images, but don’t overlook combining all into the same photo. For instance, make a panorama that has great depth, a simple composition, and no clutter in the fore or background.

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    This would be a far better article if it had some depth to it. Showing us 3 pix doesn’t hack it.

    I would like to see an article that was, maybe 20 times as long, with each page showing an example the flawed picture along with a similar picture without the flaw.


    Good article. You hit some important highlights. I’ve never figured out how to focus 1/3 into the picture. Say the mountain is one mile away and the foreground is 5 ft away. One third into the scene is 5,280/3=1760 ft. Focusing here is focusing at infinity. How do you determine where the 1/3 point is? Do you mean measure 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the two dimensional viewfinder?

    Thanks Robert and Bob for your support – much appreciated.

    Bob – good question – finding the sweet spot is a matter of practice and easily learned. If the foreground is 5 feet away and you stop down to f16 or 22, experiment placing the focus distance at 10 feet, 12 feet, 15 feet. Each will produce a different amount of DOF – the purpose it serves is “focus bracketing.” If you really want to get precise, I suggest you download a HYPER FOCAL CARD – all over the internet. Based on the focal length of the lens in accordance with the proximity of the foreground object, the Hyper focal card will tell you the precise distance to set on the lens.

    Sherwood – please realize the amount of space is limited as these Tips are not meant to be feature articles. I recommend you go back through many of Tips of the Week so you get a feel for the format.

    Great article. Short and to the point is the way to go these days. a few pointers to get people thinking. Most people only pick up 1-3 things to try from a short piece like this. If folks need extreme detail and multiple examples, they can always PAY to purchase a full blown how to book, or get 1 on 1 mentoring, training, or go to a workshop. I usually don’t feel entitled to someone handing me all the answers
    for free.

    Good article, Russ. Your tips have great value as they make us think and are easy to remember when we prepare to take the shot and when we are editing.

    Bill Brennan

    great article, sometimes we get so excited about shooting pictures in a beautiful are we don’t stop and think about these tips. the too much sky tip really hits home with me. thank you

    Great article, straight to the point and easy to remember. Thanks for sharing.

    Hyperfocal point:Approximately, the distance 1/3 from the bottom of the viewfinder to the top of the frame.

    Approximate HYPERFOCAL distances of the above pictures.

    Pic 1 :will be half the vertical distance of the sand dune( Which is 1/3 of the vertical distance of the frame.

    Pic 2: The level that the 2nd and 3rd trees emerge from the green shrubs.

    Pic 3: A horizontal line from left to right joining the water reflections of the peaks of the 2nd and 4th mountain peaks.

    Great advice. Having read the above, I must add; picture number one has an inspiring magical value to it. The other two are very nice and bring home the points. Thanks for the ongoing tips and newsletters. Even after 35 plus years there are many more things to learn!

    Russ has become very inspiring. I stumbled on one of his articles today and I have not stopped reading others. He is so practical. Oh how I wish I will remember all his tips.
    Thanks Russ!

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