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When people think about photography, one of the first things that come to mind is probably a mountain landscape or a seascape. Photography is often compared with painting and, to take the analogy even further, it is said that to take a photo is like painting with light.
Caption: Sunset at Durdle Door in the Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK.
But what people usually neglect (especially non-photographers) is that the process of capturing a great landscape photo is far from being as straightforward as seeing something beautiful, reaching out for the camera and pressing the shutter button.
Photography of any kind requires a wealth of knowledge that is difficult to acquire and many subtleties are involved in the process of creating a photo that is able to convey the beauty that the eye of the photographer experienced.
In this post I want to share 5 tips that will steepen your learning curve when it comes to becoming a landscape photographer.
1. You need a subject
This might sound silly, but it is in fact something that takes a while to realize. Even after reading about it and hearing it from other photographers, it takes time to fully understand that a photo needs a subject.
I enjoy going to the mountains. In fact, I started making photos partly because I used to see some incredible places while hiking and I felt the need to capture those views. During some of my early trips, I used to just take out my camera whenever I was standing in front of a view that, in my mind, looked like taken out of a postcard.
Caption: Winter landscape near Davos, Switzerland.
However, when I returned home and developed the film (yes, I am talking about pre-digital camera times here), I was consistently frustrated by the results. It turned out that, even though the view was overwhelming, the lack of a main subject made it look dull when seen in a photo.
I finally came to accept that the eye has a different way of embracing beauty than a camera, something that arises from the 2-dimensional nature of a photo. This means that, in order to produce an image that has some impact on the viewer, you definitely need to include at least one subject that stands out from the rest of the elements within the picture, which will then act as a background.
2. Use the depth of field
This is more like two tips in one. The first thing to say is the well-known rule that when doing landscape photography, you need to keep as many things in focus as possible. Of course there are situations where breaking this rule can produce interesting results, but let’s stick to the standards here.
In order to keep the whole scene in focus, you simply need to work with large f-number (meaning a small aperture of the diaphragm). However, avoid the extreme values of your lens, since that will create unsharp images.
The second thing to say about depth of field is in terms of composition. Since you will have all the levels of your image in-focus, adding different layers in your composition helps to create an interesting image, with different elements for the viewer’s eye to focus on.
Caption: A short pause during an ascent to Urus (5420 m) in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
Don’t overdo this, however. If you have too many elements within an image, the viewer’s eye will find it hard to look at your image as a whole and you will thus fail on your initial purpose.
Also, while playing with your depth of field, try different angles. You will be surprised to see how different an image taken from exactly the same spot but from a position much closer or farther from the ground will look.
3. Use a tripod
Many people don’t like tripods, basically because they are bulky and heavy to carry. This is especially true when hiking or climbing since you have to carry the tripod around.
But the truth is that a tripod has many advantages so it is worth the effort. Not only is your best guarantee of getting perfectly sharp images, but it will also allow you to capture dynamic elements like cloud or water motion or start trails.
Caption: Volcanic landscape at night in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain.
If you are traveling by car, get the best tripod you can afford. Tripods can be quite expensive since, even though the working principle is pretty simple and the same for all of them, building a really steady one that brings to a minimum the shake of your camera under windy conditions is an expensive process.
Also, be prepared to not only pay a large amount of money when buying a really good tripod, but also to carry a significant weight. Sturdiness usually comes together with extra weight. However, if you cannot afford an expensive tripod or if you simply need a lightweight option, try to get one that has a weight hook so you can simply hang your backpack or any other weight you can find to get some extra stability.
If you really need to minimize weight, take at least a mini tripod. While they are not that stable, having one of those is better than nothing and it will certainly help you once you need it.
4. Wake up early
This can be a tough one. If you are on a multi-day hiking trip, waking up at 5 am the day after a long walk and an awful, sleepless, night can be something that your whole body and mind will fight against. But the truth is that, once you back home going through you images, there is a high chance that your favorites will be those sunrise shots.
Also, be aware of astronomical events such as meteorite showers. If you are staying far from civilization, you will have the chance to see and capture skies like you haven’t seen before and that is something worth including in your shots and, if you capture a couple of meteorites as well, you will certainly have an award-winning shot.
Caption: Sunrise at fields near Guildford, Surrey, UK.
You can also get similar results if you wait until sunset, even though some things will change, the angle of the Sun being the most obvious of course. However, at sunset, especially while outdoors, things will not look exactly the same. For instance, there will not be dew on plants and lakes will tend to have waves, while at sunrise, given that the air is still cool from the night, they tend to be stiller.
5. Use photography-sharing websites
While getting obsessed with likes and favs is definitely something to avoid, getting constructive criticism on your photos and carefully looking at other people’s work will help you improve in your photography at a much faster pace than if you simply try to improve by your own.
A downside of photography-sharing sites like Flickr or 500px is that they are full of people simply fishing for attention, meaning that most of the criticism you will get is in the form of ‘Great shot! Please check my work!’ and that definitely adds nothing to your learning process.
Caption: Panoramic view of Reine in Loften Archipelago, Norway.
In a more personal level, if you have friends who also enjoy photography, go out with them on mini photography tours. This will not only provide for some fun time, but comparing your shots once you are back home will help you get a feeling of the different aspects involved in composing an image.