Improving Your Landscape Photography by Adding a Subject into the Picture

Improving Your Landscape Photography by Adding a Subject into the Picture

Have you ever made a picture of a landscape? Sure you have. Everyone has. Making the photo is the easy part, but showing the landscape how you experienced it, is something else. Often the photo does not show the landscape from you perception. Finding a subject is often one of the solutions.

For a lot of photo enthusiasts it is the first thing that is photographed when the new camera has arrived: a landscape. You can find a landscape everywhere; you just have to step outside the door. It does not matter where you live. Landscapes can even be found in the city; they are called urban landscapes.

A landscape is patience, does not run or fly away, and it is changing every hour of the day, every season, every year. And you don’t have to talk to it, or be afraid it will give critique on the way you are holding your camera, or what setting you use.

This landscape is really beautiful, but the image does not show it. The use of extreme wide angle, in combination with the lack of a subject, makes is not interesting to look at. (EOS 5D mark IV + Laowa 12mm zero-D | ISO100 | f/11 | 1/250)

A landscape may be perfect to shoot, but it is absolutely not easy. Well, it is easy to take a picture, but if you do this without thought, the picture probably won’t show the landscape the way you experienced it. Sure, you can travel for thousands of miles to shoot an amazing place that absolutely cannot go wrong, but most of the time you will not be at such a place. Unless you live next to it, of course, but then you get used to it and it won’t be so special anymore. So you have to find a way to make the picture you took more attractive. A way to show the landscape the way you experienced it.

A view upon the city of Le-Puy-en-Velay at the Auverne. It is an impressive view when standing on the mountain top. But the image shows way too much. There is no clear subject to be found, so I keep on wandering around the picture. (EOS 5D mark IV + EF70-200L @ 70mm | ISO100 | f/9 | 1/125)

There are a couple of ways to make a landscape more attractive on a picture. First of all, certain light conditions can add a lot. That is why many landscape photographers start photographing at dawn, or during sunset, or at twilight. During these times the light can be at its best. That is why those moments of the day are called golden hour. But even that kind of light cannot rescue a picture if it just shows the landscape. It has to be more than that. You need something that you can show the viewer. In other words, you will have to find a subject in that landscape.

The first thing I always tell my workshop participants is how important a subject in the picture is. Without a subject the picture will be empty, no matter what is in the frame. The before-after example of the Cap Griz-Nes lighthouse at Opal Coast shows clearly how much difference a subject makes. You need something to look at. But you also need one clear subject, not multiple subjects that cry for attention. The viewer may get confused if you show too much. I made the example of the lighthouse with a little help of Photoshop, just like the house at the Faroe Islands below. Its presence makes the image much more interesting to look at. 

A subject can be anything. It can be a striking tree, a flower, a person, an animal, or just a rock. If you have found the subject, also make sure it is the subject without doubt. So don’t limit yourself by using the extreme wide angle lens everyone told you to use, when photographing landscapes. Don’t be afraid to leave things outside the frame. Less is more, so use the zoom function of your lens if necessary. I often shoot landscapes with focal lengths up to 400mm, just because I don’t want other things in the frame that would be distracting in some way or another.

I choose this house on the mountain slope as a subject. Of course the light of late afternoon made the house stand out. Without the house there wouldn't be anything to look at. (Sony A9 + FE100-400G @ 400mm | ISO100 | f/8 | 1/80)

You don’t have to place the subject as large as possible in the frame, of course. A subject has to fit into the landscape, and at the same time stand out. You can achieve this by photographing under the right conditions, like the golden hour, or by playing with light and shadow if the situation makes this possible. It is also possible to use lines in the picture to lead the eye to the subject. This can be diagonals, curves, or triangles. Just use composition guidelines to help the viewer find the subject in the frame.

The mountain slopes and the rays of light guide the viewer towards the valley, which I find to be the subject in this image. (Sony A9 + Canon EF70-200L @ 70mm | ISO400 | f/2,8 | 1/4000)

A subject can be used for different purposes. A subject close up front, shot with an extreme wide angle lens, makes it standout more because it is much larger than the things in the back. It tells the story of the subject in the landscape itself. Or you can place the subject further in the back, to show some kind of perspective. You can use it to show the vastness of the land, and how empty or how large the surroundings are.

The village of Mikladalur on Kalsoy (Faroe Islands) from a large distance shows how impressive the mountains are compared with the settlement. The subject are the houses of the village. (EOS 5D mark IV + EF100-400L @ 263mm (+ crop) | ISO100 | f/8 | 1/400)

Does a picture always need a subject? Well, of course not. You can also play with structures and lines. In those cases you must leave anything out that might be considered as a subject. On the other hand, form and structure can be a subject of its own. Making those pictures work is something that I find very difficult.

One thing must be very clear. A subject in your landscape picture is not a guarantee for a good picture. Composition, use of focal length, depth of field, light and darkness, and perspective, will also play their role in acquiring a good photo. But having a subject might be the first thing to look for.

The subject does not have to be large in the frame, as long as it stands out, just like these egrits at the moorlands of the Groote Peel during sunrise (EOS 5D mark IV + EF70-200L @ 200mm | ISO100 | f/8 | 1/25)

Do you search for a subject in your landscape photography? Or have you another way to make the landscape as impressive like the way you experienced it? I love to read about it in the comments.

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Peter Anspach's picture

Great article! I'm just starting in photography and landscape is quickly becoming my favorite style.l and this had great info in it. Thanks

Nando Harmsen's picture

You're welcome. Good luck with your photography and enjoy it.

Ryan Luna's picture

It's funny how long it took me to grasp the concept of "What is the subject?" of the landscape I'm shooting. I still catch myself struggling with it when I'm at the beach with a beautiful sunset popping off. A compelling image is no longer a pretty sunset/sunrise to me. What is the subject of the image? If a pretty sunset compliments the subject, then BONUS!

Nando Harmsen's picture

I hope my article will help you figure it out. :)

bling bling's picture

ohh. it very beautyful. i very like! thank you so much!


James Brown's picture

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aric walker's picture

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