Tips and Tricks for Better Landscape Photography (Part 1)


Yosemite Valley

There’s just something about venturing out in nature with the challenge of capturing some of the amazing beauty of creation: waiting patiently for the perfect opportunity, all the while appreciating the moment-by-moment changes in the scenery as sun and clouds trek across the sky. Over the next couple posts, I’ll offer a few photography tips to help you make the most of your landscape / scenic photography endeavors.

Maximize your Depth of Field

The term, “Depth of Field” (DOF) describes how much of your scene in front of and behind what you’re focusing on is also in focus. For landscape photography, the typical approach is to ensure that as much of your scene is in focus as possible – from foreground (closest to the camera) to distant background. The simplest way to do this is to choose a small lens aperture (the opening in the lens that controls how much light enters the camera).  The smaller the aperture, the more is in focus from near to far (i.e., greater depth of field).  By their very design (digital sensor size and lens), point and shoot cameras naturally tend to have a greater DOF.  If you’re using a digital single lens reflex (DSLR – with interchangeable lenses), you will have more control over choosing your desired aperture.  Though it’s not intuitive, the smaller the aperture, the larger its number: e.g.,f/16 is a smaller lens opening than f/1.8, and will result in greater DOF as in the example at right where the rocks in the foreground are as sharp as the distant crag of the Mount Whitney summit.

A larger aperture (smaller number) decreases your DOF, allowing you to throw the background out of focus.  This is often used for portrait photography – even in nature – to draw your viewer’s attention to your subject by softening the background, like the portrait below from the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA.

If your camera has “scene modes,” you probably have one for scenic or landscape photography, which likely includes a small aperture for great depth of field.

Steady Your Camera -Use a Tripod

Camera shake can ruin a photograph. Even a slight amount of blur can be distracting (unless that’s the look you’re after – e.g, moving water). Any time you can use a tripod to stabilize your camera, your images will benefit for it. In fact even if you’re able to shoot at a fast shutter speed, using a tripod requires you to slow down and think about the composition of your image. The result is nearly always a more interesting image.  To avoid touching the camera during the exposure (and defeating the purpose of having the camera on a tripod in the first place), consider using your camera’s self-timer to release the shutter. Set the timer, push the button, and then hands-off until the image is completed.  The added advantage is that you can also run and get into the shot (like the Alabama Hills portrait at the right).

Find a Focal Point

Think of a photograph you’ve seen that really sticks with you.  Chances are, there was a specific subject in that image – a focal point – that grabbed your attention, and caused you to linger on that image.  All images need some sort of focal point – and landscapes are no different.  Without a focal point, a landscape image is just a cool background in search of a subject.  Your viewers will simply wander about the image without knowing where to look.

Focal points can take many forms in landscape photography:  a building or statue; a person, a silhouette, a boulder, a waterfall, a flower – the possibilities are endless.  But there should be something that you can point to as the subject of your photograph. For example, in the image at right, the purple coneflowers are clearly the subject of the photograph, set against the concrete and steel urban landscape of the Chicago skyline.

Also consider where you place your subject in the frame – think rule of thirds (more on that below).

Think Foregrounds

Related to the previous point about having an identifiable focal point / subject, consider placing your focal point in the foreground of your image (that is, closest to the camera) as in the above image of the coneflowers. This draws your viewer into the photograph, and also gives a sense of depth / distance.

The Rule of Thirds

Because most cameras by default have their autofocus point in the center of the frame, the natural tendency is to place the subject of the image in the center as well.  However, you’ll find you have a much stronger, more dynamic composition if you imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over your viewfinder (or LCD) and place your subject along one of those vertical or horizontal lines.  In the example of the Lone Cypress at Monterey at right, the tree, which is the subject of the photograph, is placed at approximately the intersection of the left and upper third lines – resulting in a strong composition that draws the viewer into the image. Notice also that the horizon is at the upper third horizontal line rather than smack dab in the center of the image.

Add Your Own Tips and Tricks

I’m sure you have some tips of your own for great landscape photography. Feel free to add them to the comments below.

Thanks for dropping by!


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