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Learning what makes a good landscape photo comes down to lighting and composition. Lighting in outdoor photography can be difficult because you can’t control the source and it’s unpredictable. I’m sharing some tips I’ve learned over the years on composing great landscape photos and overcoming lighting issues that don’t involve waking up at the crack of dawn to make golden hour.
The best lens for landscape photography is a wide-angle lens which is generally considered 35mm or less. A wide-angle lens fits more into the frame than a standard or telephoto lens and allows you to capture the whole scene and create depth of field.
Many outdoor photographers will tell you the golden hour is the only way to get great landscape photos. Golden hour is the hour after sunrise and before sunset and has the ideal lighting for outdoor shots. But planning your vacation around 2 hours a day is difficult and limiting. One way to minimize harsh mid-day shadows is bracket exposure: a setting where the camera will take 3 different photos in quick succession at 3 different exposures. Then Lightroom can blend the photos using the best elements from each which helps reduce an overexposed sky and harsh shadows.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it will help improve your landscape photos when planning activities around golden hour are difficult or not possible. You may also find the images the camera thought were over or underexposed are actually better than the “properly” exposed image.
The first three photos in the below series are the three original photos. The first is what the camera thought was the correct exposure and would be the only image I had if I hadn’t used bracket exposure. There are a lot of shadows on the face of the rock and in the background. The middle photo exposes the background and reduces the shadows on the face, but most of the face is overexposed, while the third photo is underexposed and dark.
The final photo is the HDR blend of all three images which used the best exposure of each to create a photo better than any were on their own.
Utilize the rule of thirds when framing a landscape photo and avoid placing the horizon in the middle of the frame. Whether you place the horizon on the upper or lower third will be influenced by how interesting or uninteresting the sky and foreground are.
In the photo on the left, Yosemite Valley is more appealing than the sky, so I place the horizon in the upper third. On the right, the sunset at White Sands was more appealing than including more sand dunes. If you’re unsure of which would look best, just take one of both. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try.
A good rule of thumb for composing great landscape photos is to have a front, middle, and back. Leading the eye through 3 distinct zones helps create depth and dimension.
Lens filters are tools photographers use to help them achieve a certain look. They are affordable, help protect your lens, enhance colors, reduce reflections, and reduce light.
Circular polarizing filters can help create bluer skies, fewer reflections, increase contrast, and reduce haze.
Neutral Density Filters are like sunglasses for your eyes, reducing the amount of light that reaches the sensor and allowing you to reduce the shutter speed. Neutral density filters are useful for creating a flowy water look.
The other day, in spite of threats of rain, I went for a hike at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. A passerby saw me taking pictures and said “too bad you don’t have better weather”. What most people don’t realize is overcast days are actually ideal because it’s golden hour all day long! Be careful with your equipment and have a rain cover, but weather elements can add a lot of visual appeal and should be embraced not feared.
Fog can create a moody feel and hide distracting backgrounds. Foggy weather is one of my favorite times to shoot.
Overcast days cover the sun and eliminate shadows. It’s also easier to maintain consistent exposure throughout the photo. Sunny days can cause an overexposed sky or an underexposed foreground.
A good landscape photo focuses on the whole scene rather than trying to create image blur. Aperture controls the amount of background or foreground blur – lower f-stops create more blur and higher f-stops create less blur. A good aperture setting for landscape photography is somewhere between f/8 and f/11.
It’s difficult for a viewer to imagine how grandiose a scene is unless you include elements the viewer would be familiar with, such as people, animals, and buildings. When a viewer sees something they consider large, like a building, taking up a minuscule amount of space, they can begin to visualize the scale of the scene.
These are just a few of the tips I use most regularly. Share your tips in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!