I’ve known a lot of folks over the years that have bought a new camera or a new lens or another expensive piece of camera gear, thinking that it would automatically get them better landscape photos. Imagine their disappointment when that didn’t occur! New gear is nice to have, and I’ll be the first to admit that you can probably do more with a new camera than an old one. But doing more doesn’t always translate into doing better.
By that I mean this: what impacts the quality of your landscape photography the most isn’t your gear – it’s you! That means that instead of going out and buying fancy new photography equipment, you should instead invest your energies in learning a few things that have a direct impact on the quality of your photos. Here’s a few easy tips you can use to do just that.
Set Yourself Up For Success
Step one in becoming an improved landscape photographer is to lay the groundwork for better photos by practicing under good conditions. Good conditions means situations in which the lighting is at its best. This often occurs during Golden Hour, that period just before sunrise and just after sunset when the light from the sun is soft and golden. As you can see in the image above, Golden Hour light is gorgeous and lights up the landscape in a way that’s simply impossible during the daytime. Where Golden Hour light is soft, daytime light is harsh. Where Golden Hour light is, well, golden, daytime light has a bluish hue. You simply cannot get the kind of photo seen above when you’re out shooting at noontime.
Additionally, cloudy days are ideal for landscape photography because the clouds act like a giant diffuser, softening even the harshest daytime lighting. Landscape shots on cloudy days can be every bit as dramatic as those taken during Golden Hour but in a much different way. The sunset image at the beginning of this section is exploding with color that gives it drama. The overcast shot, on the other hand, is dark, moody, and its storm clouds give it a sense of danger. In both cases, the key is that the light is diffused. There’s no harsh contrasts. No wide dynamic range between super bright highlights and super dark shadows. If you hunt for opportunities to practice your landscape photography at Golden Hour and on cloudy days, you’ll get results that are much improved over landscape photos taken in broad daylight.
Look for Elements to Highlight in the Shot
Far too many beginner (and even intermediate and enthusiast) landscape photographers stand there and take a photo of a major element like a mountain, a waterfall, or waves crashing on the beach. And while these are certainly worthy subjects, if you want to elevate your photos to the next level, it’s necessary to find supporting elements that you can highlight in the shot. When you’ve found a location you’d like to photograph, spend a few minutes surveying the scene. Look for things to place in the foreground – a rock, a textured area of sand on the beach, a patch of colorful wildflowers – that will give some interest to the shot and help invite viewers to inspect the photo on a deeper level.
In the image above, though Half Dome is no doubt the focal point of the image, notice how the inclusion of the trees in the foreground gives some texture, color, and shape to the foreground. What’s more, the viewer’s eye will naturally follow the vertical nature of the trees, which helps push their eye towards Half Dome. Perhaps there’s an interesting looking tree you can incorporate into the midground of the shot (like in the image above). You might find a little building to place in the background. Maybe you can incorporate a roadway, a fence line, or even a person.
The point is that a photo of a mountain or a waterfall or a sand dune might be just fine. But adding other elements into the shot to provide some interest will make your landscape photos stand out from the crowd.
Mix and Match Lenses
Part of becoming a better landscape photographer is challenging yourself to see landscapes in new and unique ways. A great way to do that is to use different lenses to take photos of the same subject. Here’s what I mean. When I started taking landscape photos, I used a 22mm wide-angle lens. With that lens, I was able to get some pretty good shots that showed the width and depth of the scene and allowed me to show off wide vistas, similar to how I saw them with my own eyes.
Then I tried a 50 mm standard lens, and I was shocked at the difference in what I could see through the viewfinder. There was a pronounced restriction in my field of view that forced me to change the way I approached photographing landscapes. Instead of looking at the wide vista as a whole, I had to start looking for smaller vignettes to highlight in my photos. That was even more the case when I started using a 70-200mm zoom lens to take some telephoto landscape photos. Looking at the image above, you can see what I mean. The telephoto view allowed the photographer to zero in on the interesting shapes and textures of the tree tops – details that would not have been highlighted in a wide-angle shot.
The point here isn’t that you need to go out and buy a bunch of lenses. Like I said earlier, it’s not the gear that will make you better. But you can rent different lenses for a few days, just to give yourself the chance to learn how to see landscapes in a new and different way. The act of doing so will help you see elements of the landscape that are worthy of a photo that, with a wide-angle lens, might otherwise go unnoticed.