How do you make your landscape photographs stand out from the crowd?
You set up your tripod at some often photographed location. The scenery around you is stunning. Great, but what next? How do you make sure that your landscape photographs stand out from the thousands or even millions of photographs taken by others in the same spot? Landscape photography is pretty easy to do but it takes a lot of effort to do well.
Simply finding a beautiful or interesting location is not enough to ensure quality photographs. In this guide, I aim to share some tips that will help you take better landscape photographs, photographs that stand out from the crowd.
Before we get started with the tips, it is worth taking a moment to think about what we mean by landscape photography. We usually think of photos of mountains, valleys or countryside when we think of landscape photography and these can of course make excellent subjects.
However, landscape photography can also include subjects such as seascapes, forests, deserts and urban scenes. Personally, I love shooting urban landscapes in my own city of Dublin and while I’m travelling around Europe and beyond. This guide provides tips that can be applied to all types of landscape photography.
So let’s get started!
1. It’s all about the light.
When it comes to landscape photography, it really is all about the light. The right lighting conditions can transform an already attractive scene into something really spectacular. As a rule, the best lighting conditions for landscape photography tend to occur in the morning and in the evening when the sun is low in the sky. At these times, the sun tends to cast a warm golden light over the landscape. The fact that the sun is low in the sky also creates interesting combinations of light and shadow. You’ve probably heard photographers refer to these times of the day as the ‘golden hour’ or ‘magic hour’.
I took this photograph not long after sunrise when the low sun was casting long shadows across the scene. Would this same scene have been as interesting later in the day when the sun was high in the sky? Unlikely. It really is worth making the effort to shoot landscapes during the morning or evening golden hours. The next 3 tips will explain in more detail the advantages of shooting in the morning, evening and at night.
2. Shoot in the morning.
I’ve already mentioned how the sunlight in the hour or so just after sunrise casts a warm, golden light over everything it hits off. Take a look at the sample photographs below. Both were taken during the morning golden hour.
In the photo on the left, the low sun bathes the boat house and stone bridge by the lake in warm light. On the right, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris seems to glow in the golden morning light.
The dawn period just before sunrise is also a fantastic time for landscape photography. At this time, the light is more subtle and pale. In fact, it is one of my favourite times for shooting both natural and urban landscapes. Often the sky contains a beautiful mixture of orange and pink tones at this time.
Examples of dawn landscape photography from County Kildare in Ireland and Paris.
3. Shoot in the evening.
We get a second golden hour in the evening just before the sun sets. The photograph below was taken a few moments just before the sun dipped behind the mountains. The very last rays of sunlight created a beautiful sunburst. In this case, the light you see in the picture only lasted a few seconds. Often, we have to wait for a short window of ‘perfect’ light. It’s definitely worth it though.
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4. Shoot at night.
Night time is a perfect time for urban landscape photography in particular. Urban scenes can look fantastic at night as the city lights come to life. So, when is the best time to shoot night time photographs? The obvious answer is ‘at night’ of course! However, there is a little more to it than that. The optimum time for night time photography is in the period just after sunset when there is still a little ambient light in the sky. Often, you can still see the red and orange hues of the setting sun in the sky after sunset. This is a great time for shooting urban landscapes.
A little after this, we enter the ‘blue hour’. This is when night has fallen but the sky is a deep shade of blue before it turns completely black. Blue hour doesn’t last very long but it is the perfect time to take night time photos in a city. When the sky becomes completely black, the resulting photographs tend to be less attractive. Also, the contrast between the buildings and sky is too high resulting in exposure problems. Don’t forget that there is also a blue hour in the morning before sunrise. I take a lot of my night time urban landscape photographs in the morning. Look at the following examples.
The photo on the left was taken in Dublin before sunrise. It is still night time but the light from the sun below the horizon gives the clouds a beautiful pink tint. The second photo is a classic ‘blue hour’ photograph. The sky is a deep shade of blue which contrasts well with the building lit in red. An hour later and the sky would be pure black and this same composition would not be as attractive. The window for blue hour photography is often quite short although you usually get a longer blue hour in the Summer.
5. Plan ahead and do your research.
I find that I get far better results when I plan ahead. A few years ago, I spent a few days photographing Paris for a panel I was putting together. Before arriving in the city, there were a few things I did to prepare and increase my chances of getting the photos I wanted:
- I researched the sunrise and sunset times using The Golden Hour Calculator website. This website also gives you an idea of where the sun will be positioned in the sky during the golden hours.
- I used Google Maps and Street View to scout out potential locations and viewpoints.
- I spent some time studying photographs that others had taken to get some ideas and inspiration (more on this in the next tip).
- I studied the weather forecasts to get an idea of what the lighting conditions might be like. Yr.no is an excellent website for accurate weather forecasts.
- I made out a plan of what I wanted to photograph each day during the golden and blue hours.
When I arrived in Paris, I didn’t simply head to the locations I wanted to photograph and start taking shots. As,we’ve already seen, you tend to get the best landscape photographs in the morning and evening. So what did I do during the day? Well, I spent some time visiting the locations I planned to photograph later that day or the following morning. I looked for potential photos I could take and used my phone camera to take some quick shots of ideas I had for compositions I would try with the DSLR later.
I also tried to visualise what the scene would look like during golden hour for example: what direction the light would be coming from and where the sun would be rising or setting. It meant that I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I came back later to photograph the location. Sometimes however, you might get an idea for a shot on the spur of the moment. I find, I get better shots when I have a plan though
6. Get inspired by other photographers.
Spend some time looking at the work of other photographers. This is especially true if you plan to photograph a new location. See what others have done before you and get some ideas. This doesn’t mean you have to copy what others have done but studying what others have done before can be a jumping off point for your own ideas.
Flickr and 500px are good places to start. There are also plenty of photography forums that contain some great examples of landscape photography. You can also browse the websites of individual photographers. Here is a list of excellent landscape photographers’ websites. Finally, joining a photography club is a great way of learning from your fellow photographers.
7. Invest in a quality tripod.
One of the most important pieces of equipment you will ever own is a tripod. Tripods are essential for producing sharp landscape photographs. We tend to use very narrow apertures when shooting landscapes in order to ensure that all of the image is sharp from foreground to background. Narrow apertures tend to mean relatively slow shutter speeds as the it takes longer for enough light to reach the sensor through the smaller hole. This leads to a risk of camera shake if we try to shoot handheld.
By using a high quality tripod, we eliminate the risk of camera shake. The tripod is something worth spending a bit on. A cheap tripod is not likely to be steady enough. It is true, that lugging a heavy tripod around can be cumbersome but I think it’s worth it to ensure pin sharp photographs.
8. Use the rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds has been used as a compositional guide by artists for thousands of years. There is good reason for this as it tends to help produce very pleasing compositions. Imagine the frame is divided into a grid, 3 boxes wide by 3 boxes high. You can then use the horizontal and vertical lines to position important elements such as the horizon. You should also try to position particular points of interest where the lines intersect. Keep in mind though, that the rule of thirds is a only a guide and your composition doesn’t have to follow the grid exactly.
Take a look of the following examples to see how rule of thirds is used to create pleasing compositions. Some cameras even allow you to display this grid on the back screen in live view mode. We have natural tendency to want to place the main subject of the photo in the centre of the frame. Placing it to the side using the rule of thirds grid makes for a far more engaging and interesting composition though.
9. Frame the scene.
Look for elements that you can use to frame the scene. In the first photos below I used the trunks and branches of the tree in the foreground to create a natural frame around the scene. In the second photo, I used the archway to frame the couple walking through and the buildings in the background.
10. Use leading lines.
Look for lines in the frame that can be used to lead the viewer’s eye into the scene. Take a look at the following photographs for examples of how to use leading lines. The lines don’t necessarily have to be straight as you can see from the example with the winding pathway leading to the tree.
11. Look for symmetry.
Photographing symmetrical scenes can produce very pleasing compositions. In this case, placing the main subject of the photograph in the centre of the frame works very well.
12. Change your perspective.
From time to time, try to get a different point of view. We tend to shoot mainly at head height. Don’t be afraid to get down low with the camera or find a view point higher up. For the photograph below, I went to the roof of the Montparnasse Tower at night to capture some photographs of Paris from high above the city.
In order to capture a view of the various bridges in Prague from above, I found a location on the hills of Letna Park that allowed me to photograph the city from a height. Before even going to Prague, I had researched this location using Google Maps and by looking at photographs others had taken before me.
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13. Use foreground interest.
Including some foreground interest can add depth to a landscape photograph. When you are out shooting, look around for features you could use to provide foreground interest in the frame. It could be rocks or a fallen branch for example.
In this photograph of a waterfall in The Netherlands, the rocks in the river provided a perfect source of foreground interest.
I took this photograph in the Dublin Docklands. The dock cleats along the quay provided the foreground interest in this shot. It think it adds a real sense of depth to the composition.
14. Add some human interest.
Just because you are taking a landscape photograph doesn’t mean you can’t include some human interest in your images. Including people in your frame can actually add a sense of scale to the scene. Sometimes, this means waiting patiently for the right person to walk into the scene and taking your shot at the exact right moment.
You could also ask whoever is with you to provide the human interest! I’ve done this several times. In fact I’ve even used myself as the human interest by setting the timer on my camera and running into position! In the photo below, the couple walking through Stephen’s Green in Dublin add some life to the scene and give us an idea of the scale of their surroundings.
15. Use aperture creatively.
The vast majority of landscape photography shots are taken using a narrow aperture usually around f16 to f22. This is to ensure that the whole photograph is sharp, from foreground to background. The narrow aperture results in greater depth of field. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with a wider aperture to achieve a shallower depth of field thereby deliberately blurring parts of the scene.
In the photograph on the right, I decided to play around with intentional blurring. I bought a small toy Eiffel Tower and set it up on a wall at the Palais Chaillot which looks out over the famous landmark. I then focused on the toy Eiffel Tower and set my aperture to f4. This resulted in the miniature version being sharp while the real Eiffel Tower in the distance was thrown out of focus due to the shallow depth of field.
It might not be my greatest photograph but it was fun to create it and it certainly resulted in a very different shot of the Eiffel Tower. So don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little and experiment with different aperture settings.
16. Use shutter speed creatively.
The shutter speed settings on your camera provide a great way to experiment with capturing motion in your landscape photography. This is especially the case with moving water.
By using a slow shutter speed (1/2 second), we can blur the water in a waterfall for example a create a sense of motion even though it’s a still image. You can see this in this photo of a waterfall in Ireland above.
In the second photograph taken in Tunisia, I used an extremely long shutter speed of 160 seconds. To achieve this, I used a 10 stop neutral density filter. This reduced the light entering the camera down to 1/1000th of what it would be without the filter. This then allowed me to set such a long exposure time. As you can see, the clouds moved across the sky during the almost 3 minutes it took to take the photo resulting in the blurred effect.
You can also use fast shutter speeds to freeze motion like in this black and white seascape below.
For this photograph, I wanted to freeze the motion of the waves crashing against the shore. A fast shutter speed of 1/320th of a second ensured that the wave seems to ‘freeze’ in time. Landscapes that include moving water afford great opportunities to experiment with different exposure times.
17. Bracket your exposures.
Sometimes, our camera can struggle to capture the full range of detail in a scene if the contrast is high. The highlights might be blown out or the shadows might be too dark and contain no detail. Bracketing your exposures is a great way of making sure you capture the full range of tones in the scene. I set my camera to use ‘auto exposure bracketing’ for almost every photograph I take. This means that the camera will take 3 exposures of the scene, one at what I set to be the ‘correct’ exposure, one that is 2 stops darker and one that is 2 stops brighter. I then combine these using the exposure blending tool in Photomatix Pro to produce a single image.
This is not the same as HDR tone mapping and produces a more natural looking result. The advantage is that all parts of the photograph contain detail from the darkest to the brightest areas. The risk of blown highlights or clipped shadows is reduced and the photographs tend to reveal more detail in general. You can also blend exposures manually using the masking tool in Photoshop.
In the example below, I used exposure blending to merge the 3 exposures of the Charles Bridge in Prague to produce a single photograph with plenty of detail in all areas of the frame.
The final photograph is a blend of all 3 images, leading to plenty of detail throughout the image. There are also no clipped shadows or blown out highlights. As you can see, I also cropped the final image to create a better composition.
18. Make sure to focus correctly.
I could write an entire blog post just about focusing properly. In fact, I probably will at some stage! For now, I’m going to keep things simple and just deal with focusing using the camera’s auto-focus function.
As we’ve already seen, we tend to use quite narrow apertures when shooting landscapes (usually between f16 and f22). This is to ensure that the whole image from foreground to background is sharp. So, where should we actually focus? A good general rule is to focus about one third into the frame from the bottom. In the photo below, I focused on a point roughly in the middle of the line.
There are other ways to focus manually by calculating hyperfocal distances but for now, I’m just going to keep things simple. I focus a third the way into the frame for the vast majority of my photographs and they are always sharp from foreground to background.
19. Focus on quality over quantity.
When I first started getting interested in photography, I tended to take hundreds of photographs when I was out with the camera. Very few of them were any good to be honest. These days, I prefer to slow down a little, really take a good look at my surroundings and focus on quality over quantity. I’d much prefer to come home with 5 or 6 really good shots than hundreds of mediocre photos.
Sometimes, when the conditions are in my favour, I could come back with a decent haul of quality photographs. On other days, it just doesn’t come together at all. Maybe the lighting conditions aren’t ideal or the building I wanted to photograph is covered in scaffolding. It happens! On one occasion, I came home with only one decent shot but I’ve sold it several times now so it was worth getting out with the camera that day even for that one good photograph.
In short, try to resist the urge to fire off hundreds of exposures. Instead, slow down, take a deep breath and look for those really special shots. This is where researching your location in advance really pays dividends (see tip #5).
20. Shoot in RAW format.
One of the questions I am often asked is whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG format? First of all,let’s take a look at the differences between each format.
A RAW file is a lossless, uncompressed file containing all of the information in your photograph. In short, no information is thrown away. These files tend to be quite large as a result, maybe triple the size of a JPEG. They tend to have quite flat colours and lack contrast. They require special software to view and edit. The most popular software programs used are Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom. At this point, you can boost the colours and contrast. No information is lost as you edit RAW files.
A JPEG file by contrast is a compressed version of the photograph. Your camera processes the image file in the seconds after you press the shutter. As this is happening, your camera actually throws away quite a lot of information (colour, tones, details etc) in order to compress the image file into a smaller size. Whereas with a RAW file you process the image manually, with a JPEG, the camera does much of the work for you. You do lose more information as you edit the file some more in a program such as Photoshop.
So which one should you use?
To me the answer is easy. RAW files win every time. You simply have more information to work with in the post-processing stage. It is easier to draw details out of shadow and highlight areas for example. You also have far more control over the way the image is processed. With a JPEG file, your camera controls this. The fact that no information is lost while you edit a RAW file is also a huge plus.
It is simply a question of quality. If you want high quality photographs with plenty of detail, RAW is the way to go. It’s true that RAW files take up a lot more space on the memory card but it’s worth it. As I said in the previous tip, quality over quantity is what counts. Memory cards are quite cheap in any case now.
I shoot all of my photographs in RAW format. I then make basic exposure and colour adjustments. Next, I convert the file to TIFF format which is also lossless. Finally I bring the file into Photoshop for some fine tuning (sharpness, fixing imperfections etc). Only, after this is all done do I convert the file to JPEG format for printing. I always keep the lossless TIFF file though in case I need to go back and make more adjustments.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this guide and that you will find it useful. Please feel free to share it on social media using the share buttons at the top and bottom of the post. I plan to write more tutorials and guides so make sure to subscribe to the blog by email in the sidebar to receive updates on new posts. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Your comments, opinions and suggestions are also very welcome.
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