I hope life is good for you. I am just back from an early morning shoot of some clouds. Over coffee at sunrise I had noticed some incredible long, creamy clouds that had turned pink. I ran down to the beach to capture them, and although the pink had faded by the time I arrived, I got some interesting long exposures.
This is not from my morning shoot, but this is another cool cloud I captured a few days ago. How cool, I thought, a cloud with a hole in it!
I love it when I have time to do that – just spontaneously photograph something interesting I see. I do, of course, plan a lot of shoots, but spontaneity is always fun!
Today I’d love to show you some simple and easy ways to create beautiful landscape shots.
I have the sense that many people feel intimidated by landscape photography. In my mind I have a stereotype of a landscape photographer that is someone who is really technical, goes out camping for days at a time and is very isolated (maybe I am thinking of Ansel Adams!)
But I am here to say that anyone can capture beautiful landscapes. Anyone can bring their passions and skills into making beautiful shots of nature. I was intimidated by landscape photography at first, but I will share today the many reasons why you needn’t be.
(And the biggest reason to delve into this genre is because it’s so relaxing and fun! Being surrounded by beautiful nature and creating is a wonderful pleasure we could all do with, especially after this crazy year. I truly believe being surrounded by nature and beauty helps to reduce stress.)
First I’d like to discuss – what is landscape photography?
When I looked up the definition of landscape photography the most relevant-to-me definition I found included this line from photographylife.com:
“The best photos demonstrate the photographer’s own connection to nature and capture the essence of the world around them.”
Creating landscape shots is all about our personal connection with the world around us – and what this world means to us.
My vision of the world around me will be different to your vision. We are all full of different passions, experiences and ways of seeing the world.
So any time I share ideas and tips, I want you to filter it through how you like to shoot and take only those that enhance your practice – but not eclipse it.
My landscape photography is by no means traditional. I am always looking to create something unique that shows who I am.
In my photography – I want to always be following my passions. (And so I say of course – you should follow yours!)
And a big passion of mine is ruins – ruins, ruins anywhere! Like this ruined house in the photo above, with the dawn light filling the windows with golden light.
Abandoned houses dot the countryside here in Andalucia, and it’s so fun to discover them in the midst of the wild beautiful nature. I love almost anything that is abandoned and crumbling – it’s a very cool theme in my work and is made even more interesting to me when there is beautiful nature nearby.
Here is one of my favourite ‘abandoned’ photos. The swimming pool of an abandoned villa that we came across in Tuscany:
So let’s get started with some tips for your landscape photography. Enjoy!
Points of interest
Most landscape photos are average because they are often trying to convey epic, sweeping views but they fall flat because there is nothing significant for the eye to fall on.
I find an easy way to create a more compelling photo is to have some points of interest for the viewer to look at in and amongst the beautiful landscape.
So here in the photo below I have the house and in the foreground, creating some depth, some grass fronds. We want to walk the line between too many things in the photo, and having something as clean and simple as possible. It’s that not too much, not too little kind of thing.
Like here, too, I shot a lot of photos of the almond blossoms by themselves, but I also found a cool road and an angle where I got that undulating feeling from the hills. There’s more than one point of interest in this shot – and I think that’s pretty cool.
This shot below I’ve included to show that you don’t need a lot of elements to create something pretty. I have lots of photos of just the moonlight on the sea, but then I saw this lovely line of the fence and the silhouette of the tree. It added some nice shapes and contrast to this eternal blue sea, some points of interest that contrasted with the gentle expanse of ocean.
And for my last shot for this point – this is actually in Istanbul – and I thought how cool it was to use the ships as points of interest to show the scale of the view, and give a feeling of contrast – peaceful mother nature and big man-made container ships made tiny by my vantage point.
What I am looking for a lot of the time in landscapes is contrast. Otherwise you can end up with vast seas of the same colour, like green or brown.
I look for contrasting textures, colours, shapes, elements.
Like here we have bands of colour:
I often like to play with the contrast between nature and man-made. To me the man-made influence is pretty fascinating, and I think it’s why I love shooting the overgrown and abandoned. It’s like a comment on how I feel about man’s impact on the natural world.
Here is aquifer natural spring in the middle of the mountains:
In the photo below, shot in Northern Vietnam, I am going more for a contrast of textures and shapes in nature. The soft shapes of the hills in the background, the bulbous shapes of the trees in the midground and the tufts of grass in the foreground. These aren’t starkly contrasting textures and shapes – but they are enough to ensure the elements are clear and stand apart from each other, and that they create depth in the frame:
Layering to create depth
One challenge that we face when shooting vistas is showing the scale of the location. The camera can’t automatically show you the vastness of a location, it is after all a 2D medium. So if you want to create depth in an image you have to do it yourself. This is why so many landscape photos look flat as the photographer is not thinking about how to create depth using the layering of foreground, midground and background.
You basically want to have a distinct element in each of the fore, mid and background parts of your photo. That way the viewer will see the vast expanse before them as you see it in 3D when you are there.
Let me show you some examples of what I mean.
I think this sign was created for Instagrammers; it looks pretty cliched, right! But what a cool contrast of subjects – these vast ancient mountains and the bikes and homemade sign.
In this photo above you have layers that give you the feeling of the scale of the place.
The light has obviously hit the mountain at the right time so you see clearly the shapes of the mountains in the background, and because the light is changing the colour of the mountains you have layers of mountains coming into the midground. Then the foreground is obviously the path, bikes and signs. If we didn’t have that diffuse light pouring over the mountains creating a definition of each range, it wouldn’t have created such depth to the photo.
In the photo below, I have four layers creating depth which in part is created by some contrast of colours and the different nature. We have green foliage in front, the pink of the blossoms in the midground, with the green trees on the second hill, and then in the background the light has created a far-away feeling of that background hill.
Now to Ha Giang, in Northern Vietnam, one of the most breathtaking and surreal places I’ve been to. Can you see how each layer is building on each other to create a deep scene where you can get a sense of what it is like to stand there? And how the sun in the background blasts through and gives us a shining background?
Forests are pretty tough to shoot in an interesting way. Lots of trees all together, with canopies of branches and leaves creating dark and dense scenes. In this shot below I used a stream of natural light to create depth in the image, so we have the foreground tree in the middle, the midground created by the light and then a faraway background of sky peeking through the trees and branches.
Weather & yes of course it’s STILL all about light
I once had someone email me to say that they went to all the same places in Vietnam that I went and yet their photos were nowhere near as good.
One of the reasons, and I knew as soon as he told me the times he was visiting, was that the light wasn’t the best for the locations he was picking.
LIGHT makes your photo. Light is the number one factor you need to consider in your photography.
Is this place best at night? Early in the morning? In the afternoon? This is relevant to all locations, all genres, all photography where you are using natural light.
And then you must ALSO consider the weather. Weather is SUPER important for landscape photography.
Will the sky be cloudless and flat? Will it be rain and then sun – when can create incredibly cinematic light? Will there just be heavy clouds with steely grey light? You need to work this out, decide if it fits into what you want to capture and then adjust your shooting accordingly.
I am totally obsessed with clouds. I am always on the lookout for interesting cloud formations. So that is something I am on high alert for.
“My cloud photographs are equivalents of my most profound life experiences, my basic philosophy of life. All art is an equivalent of the artist’s most profound life experiences.” Alfred Stieglitz
I never say never to any time of day anymore – you just need to be aware of what the light you are choosing will do to your subject.
Of course it’s safe to say a hard summer’s afternoon light is not my favourite, but I did do some cool shots around here in exactly those ‘no-no’ conditions:
I thought they turned out pretty cool!
If you arrive at a location and the light is not what you want, it is still a good idea to get some shots in your camera and plan for a return. When I’m on location I’ll plan my next trip there by imagining how I would shoot it with the light being this or that. I will find angles for next time and create some images anyway, as samples and reminders for my next visit.
It is ALWAYS a good idea to return often to places you like. The images can vary dramatically as seen below with my favourite rock:
Natural framing is when you use a natural element to ‘frame’ your subject. What this does is draw your eye into the photo and to the actual subject of the photo.
I’m not really a fan of the very obvious forms of natural framing – unlike many of the other rules of composition it is something to be used sparingly – because it will very quickly make your photos look samey. But when the situation is right, it can make beautiful photos.
In this shot below the door just felt too good not to use to frame the landscape beyond. It was even standing open for me to do just that 🙂
I love using partial framing with branches, leaves and flowers. This is the most frequent way I’ll use this technique. It helps to break up a flat ,cloudless sky, and also bring some texture and depth to the photo.
This photo below may not be pure natural framing, but I think having the trees either side helps make the tree with the sun streaming through pop even more. Having that contrast of dark and dense trees with the bright sun streaming through the silhouettes of the branches creates impact.
Read more about Natural Framing.
Landscapes are practising the art of …. Patience
“Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.” Michael Kenna
Patience for me is actually an attribute that photographers of all genres should seek to acquire. We require more patience partly because we are so used to instant gratification, ticking things off our to do list, being busy.
Being a good photographer is going in the opposite direction of high productivity. It’s slowing down so that you can notice, appreciate, feel and capture the world around you.
And landscape photography can often be an act of pure patience. Waiting for the light to change, waiting for clouds to move into your frame, looking at your weather app every day in the hope that the rain will be stopping.
But I don’t see it as a negative thing. It’s not something to overcome. Patience is something to embrace because then your photography practice becomes, like Michael Keena says in the quote above, a luxurious experience.
You are actually inhabiting and feeling time. You being mindful, observing, seeing, feeling. It’s like meditation for me.
Of course landscapes aren’t all about big, wide, grand vistas. They are also about telling the story of what the world is made up of, the detail, the textures, the colours and the atmosphere.
For me nothing is more atmospheric of an autumnal morning in England than the sombre light, dark brown of the trees and their burnished coloured leaves:
Or the light, pretty, sensual textures of almond blossom flowers on a sunny, blue-skyed day:
Or the burning heat and the surreal shapes of Joshua trees in the desert in California. Obviously I processed this to reflect that feeling of a deep burning heat of the day and the gnarly trees that looked burnt gave me:
I hope you enjoyed these ideas. I would love for you to let me know if they’ve been useful to you. Comment below, it’s always great to hear from you 🙂
Anthony and Diana