Shooting landscapes allows you to experience the quiet, peaceful moments and jaw dropping majesty that nature inspires.
Photographing landscapes was my first passion. It got me out of the house and into nature, and it became a meditation of sorts. Just me, my camera and my tripod. It inspired me to travel, sent me on some crazy adventures, and it was a nice and quiet way for me to get to know my camera; to experiment and to eventually become a full-time photographer.
Everybody has different opinions as to what makes a great landscape photograph, however the best way to really learn is by practicing and experimenting.
Start by reading this article, and then get out there and take some photos!
Here are a few tips to make your landscape photograph go from ‘Oh yeah, nice picture’ to ‘Woah, where is that!?’.
01 Get the timing right
Photography is the study of light. Literally.
When it comes to the image itself, timing is everything. I make sure I’m at the right place at the right time. I ask myself: when will the light allow me to capture the best version of that landscape?
I generally only shoot landscapes around sunrise or sunset (and because I enjoy a good sleep in, it’s generally sunset).
Light is what makes an image. With other forms of photography, you have a lot more control over the light and how it affects your subject. But with landscapes, you rely on what nature gives you.
I had two weeks in this small mountain town, every afternoon the clouds would roll in and unleash torrential downpours which blocked the sun from view. There was no amount of skill on earth that would have let me get the shot I wanted.
Then one afternoon the clouds cleared early, I knew I had my opportunity. I’d already scouted my favourite location on my long strolls around the lake. Mother Nature let me get the shot I wanted, and even threw in some children playing in the water to add the final touches.
Time of day
When the sun is close to the horizon the light softens, the color temperature of the light changes. The world shifts from harsh white/blue light, creating high contrast images with blown out highlights and dark, unflattering shadows, into a world of warm tones and soft shadows where everything the light touches becomes magical. This is the ‘golden hour’ or ‘magic hour’ in photography. Depending on where you live, this doesn’t actually last an hour. I was just in Mongolia and it was an endless sunset, lasting for 2 or 3 hours, but home in Australia, it’s much shorter.
This is the moment in the day where I can’t hold a proper conversation as the beauty of the world becomes distracting.
The diffused lighting adds depth, color and texture to your landscape. You can photograph the same landscape over and over and get completely different images simply by capturing it at different times, with different weather.
When I was a new photographer, I would capture what I thought was the best image of the day, and I’d pack up and head home. I slowly realized that the moments that create the best images are always worth waiting for.
That moment where the sun dips just below the mountains, causing a slight sun flare that takes the image to the next level, or that moment when a bird flies in at the right time. A boat passes by.
Take your time and wait. You might have already captured a pretty good photo, but spending the extra few moments could be the difference in capturing the great photo.
Usually the best way to get a great landscape is to take the time to scout out a location, know the best time to be there, get there early, set it up, figuring out the best time to shoot it.
However, sometimes you don’t have that option.
For this photo I happened to be riding a cable car up a mountain, the sun was coming up over the mountains and caused some beautiful light rays to light them up. The early morning mist was still hanging around which created an interesting depth to the photo. Light rays like this are fleeting, the moment would be gone very quickly. I grabbed my camera out and quickly snapped this, before the cable car pulled me away from the prime location.
The point of this story is to remind you to avoid being weighed down by your commitment to a certain landscape shooting process. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of planning the shot. Sometimes nature gives you the perfect moment and you just have to capture it as best you can.
02. Bring and use the right gear
Once you’ve found the location, your next task is to figure out what gear you should use to capture it.
I always travel with a tripod and either shoot a landscape with my 16 – 35mm lens, or my 70 – 200mm lens. Both lenses let you experiment with what you’re seeing.
A wide angle is perfect for capturing the entire scene, like in the following photo of a volcano inside a lake inside a crater (thanks Mother Nature for that one).
Usually the best way to zoom in on a subject is to move closer to it, however you don’t always have the option, my most recent trip to Nepal had me surrounded by mountains. The wide angle lens was a must, to be able to capture the entire epic landscape, to show how many mountains were surrounding us. However having my telephoto lens came in handy (even if it did add 1.5kg to my backpack). It allowed me to zoom in on the mountain peaks to capture specific parts of the scene.
This image of Sossusvlei Desert was taken with a wider lens. The lens adds distance between the subject and the background, so by choosing this lens she could separate the tree from the dunes in the background. This made it the point of interest, highlighting the twisted branches and roots and the dried cracked ground it’s sprouting from.
Whereas in this photograph, at the same location, Jarrad would have used a telephoto lens. Zooming in brings the subject closer to the background and giving the viewer an idea of the scale of the sand dunes.
When I began shooting landscapes I always wanted to get the entire scene in the shot, but as I continued I realized the thing that makes a photo stand out was finding the little scenes within it. Something that offers a sense of scale, or a greater sense of place.
03. Check camera settings
To capture a landscape you want to be able to capture the colours the best that you can. The first aspect of this is the ISO. You want a lower ISO, between 100 and 400 is ideal. ISO is the light sensitivity, the lower the number the less sensitive it is. Meaning it needs more light to expose the image.
Why does ISO matter? The lower the ISO the better quality the image is. There are plenty of situations you can raise it up and it doesn’t matter, especially with today’s cameras.
When I’m shooting an event I pump the ISO up. However when it comes to landscapes, lower the ISO. It will create a much cleaner image and allow you to capture the colors correctly. If I don’t have my tripod and I have to raise the ISO I can instantly see the quality of the colors decrease, gathering less information and making it much harder to edit.
The second aspect is the aperture. It also determines how much light is entering your camera, changing the aperture changes your depth of field. A wide open lens means a very shallow depth of field and a narrow aperture means a greater depth of field. When it comes to landscapes, you want to have as much of it in focus as you can, so you want a narrow depth of field, between f/8 – f14. This means less light is entering your camera, which will affect the final aspect.
It’s important to know the rules, because then you can break them. Here’s an example of how a shallow depth of field can change how you view a scene:
Shutter Speed Settings
The shutter speed. When it comes to shooting landscapes, a tripod can become your best friend. With a low ISO and a narrow aperture, you’re going to need to leave your shutter open for longer to expose the image correctly.
If you’re shooting at dawn or sunset, or even doing a night time star photo, your shutter speed can be as long as 20 – 30 seconds.
04. Apply basic rules of composition
Once you’ve chosen your landscape, decided on the time of day you’ll be shooting and know the basics of how to expose the image, you get to the extra creative part. The composition.
Take a group of photographers out to the same landscape and see how different the images are that come back. If you’re an avid Instagram scroller like myself, you’ll notice how differently certain landscapes can be shot. Or how similar.
For these photos, the composition is reasonably similar but the time of day the photographers have chosen have differentiated each of these these impressive shots.
When it comes to photography there are a few basic rules that we can follow to help compose an image.
Rule of Thirds
You create a grid (your camera probably has one) by splitting the screen into thirds, vertically and horizontally. In landscape photography you can play with putting the horizon on one of these lines. Or place the focus of your image on one of the lines or intersecting points.
For this image there is a lot going on, moving water, different tiers of waterfalls and a figure walking along. I used the rule of thirds to help me place the walking man in a balanced position of the photo.
Point of Interest
A beautiful sunset or sunrise isn’t always enough to create an interesting landscape. You want to draw the viewer’s eye to some aspect of the landscape, whether it’s a river, a person walking through or in this case this amazing black sand of Iceland.
The line draws the eye into the image, the eye follows the line so you can either create an interesting composition of the landscape, or you can draw the eye to a specific part of the photo.
It could be these cracks in the ice or the lines of a road.
05. Analyze the scene
What is it you’re photographing? What makes the landscape stand out, what makes it different to other landscapes you’ve seen. What story do you want to tell?
If it’s water, do you want to capture the flow of water, creating a peaceful look (done with a tripod and a long exposure), or do you want to freeze the water to show the power of the waterfall (done with a fast shutter speed, over 1/1000th of a second).
Is there an interesting water reflection you can capture?
Is there a river running through the scene you can draw the viewer’s eye to?
Is there a person that makes the landscape more interesting, showing a mountains scale, or that can bring a human element into image, allowing the viewer to imagine it’s them?
Is it a peaceful moment or an awe inspiring vista?
Asking myself what makes the image interesting allows me to figure out how I want to capture it.
Here’s an example where the photograoher uses the reflection to take this photo from an amazing landscape into a ‘Oh my god, how is this even real?’
06. Move around
There is a lot to offer from an amazing landscape. You don’t necessarily need to go straight for the obvious viewpoint. You can move around, climb higher or get lower in the scene to change how you’re seeing it.
Explore the place.
From a distance I captured how dreamy this location is, cascading waterfalls nestled in amongst limestone karsts, a beautiful colorful sunset shrouding the scene in its pinks and blues and yellows. This was THE shot that I wanted, the one I travelled for two days on buses and trains to get here for.
The next day I came back and explored the falls more (after all I’d spent over 30 hours to get there). From afar you can see the mystical, peaceful nature of this amazing landscape, but as I got closer I saw how powerful the falls were.
Simply exploring further allowed me to capture a completely different landscape.
07. Post process
I’m always asked if I Photoshop my images. The answer is always YES. Taking the photo is only half of it. I shoot in RAW, which saves all of the information and gives me an uncompressed image. This is important for landscape photography, as it allows you to save detail from the sky or from shadowy mountains.
When I began photographing landscapes I knew something was missing, I had no idea how to expose the sky and the mountains correctly, to get them both looking their best. The day I discovered Photoshop and how to edit specific parts of a photo changed my life, it was also the day my photographs went from intriguing amateur photographs with potential, to a professional level.
Post processing is where I can bring in my individual style, I use the curves tool to create a similar color palette. Certain colors aren’t as attractive in photos, you can desaturate certain colors, or change the hue.
For this image, the big white sky keeps drawing my eye, I wanted to bring the focus to the bridge in the centre. I darkened the sky, lightened the foreground, focussing on the river, which draws the eye towards the bridge.
For this image, I wanted to capture the highlights, so I underexposed the rest of the image. The landscape to the naked eye was much more colorful than the image looks, straight out of the camera. I wanted to bring the image back to resemble more of what I’d seen in the moment, brightening it up and increasing the warm tones. The colors I choose to use also fit into my own color style.
I was only highlighting what the camera itself had captured. Increasing certain colors more than others to create a pleasing visual.
08. Find your style
There are so many incredibly able photographers out there, but rest assured you can still stand out by creating your own style.
Generally, you’ll discover that you have your own innate style which will come out with practice. We gravitate towards the things we like.
What is it about your images that make them yours? Everyone has their own style. With some it’s what they choose to photograph (the type of landscape), for example simple, empty landscapes. For others, it’s a color scheme. Or a particular way of looking at the scene and capturing it through your eyes. Colorful, minimal, symmetrical, awe inspiring, peaceful.
Personally I like to tell stories. Having a small person in the shot brings a human element into it, looking through a window makes you feel like you’re there.
I get overwhelmed by social media and the sheer amount of insanely talented people out there, but I take a step back and look at my work and realize that only I can create these specific shots, with these specific stories.
Whatever it is that you enjoy, bring it into your photos.
Here are two of my favourite photographers whose distinctive styles are incredibly different.
09. Keep practicing
When you’re getting started, try not to get overwhelmed by the vast quantities of information out there about how to shoot better landscapes. The best way to figure it out is to simply take photos. Choose one thing at a time that you want to experiment with and go and practice it.