When you are first starting, landscape photography can seem daunting, especially when you see all of the beautiful images others post online. Here are a few ideas taken from my experience that may help you find more success as a landscape photographer.
Observe the Light
Landscape photography is all about light and how it falls on the landscape. If you want to take better photos, observe how objects change appearance at different times of day and in different weather conditions. Get out there in the early morning, be there again late in the day, and stay past sunset. Learn the patterns and movements of the sun. If you practice this, the quality of the light in your photos, and thus, your photos, will improve dramatically.
What I mean by this is to just be willing to try new things. Don’t let yourself get locked into one shooting style or one type of subject all the time. Try new things. If you normally shoot wide angle, try coming in close, or vice versa. Try new places. Don’t be afraid to shoot things that, at least at the outset, seem like they might not garner you very many likes on social media. Shoot them anyway just for fun. It will help you expand your mindset and discover new ways of approaching your photography.
A famous photographer (I can’t remember who) once said “always remember to look behind you.“ This is great advice, and it fits in perfectly with the last point. You may be focused so completely on what’s in front of you and what you are expecting to be a good shot that you might miss something beautiful behind you. I’ve had this experience several times, and it’s often still hard for me to remember to just simply scan the area around me and see what other unexpected images might be there.
Don’t get locked into the perfect shot that’s in your head. Be willing to switch to plan B when the weather conditions aren’t what you wanted or expected. Don’t be so focused on what you were seeking that you miss the other gems that might be there right in front of you. Learn how to respond to what nature gives you. If you wanted sunshine but instead you got rain, find things that look best in that soft, subdued light. Or you might get something even better than pure sunshine when the fog rolls in or when the rain lets up. And sometimes, you have to just be willing to sit it out and see what happens. This leads to the next point.
Look for Lousy Weather
Inclement weather can often lead to some of the most unique images. When storms are clearing from the mountains or fog is descending on the forest, these are the times when the light can be magical. Parts of the landscape may go in and out of view or be highlighted with a fleeting spotlight. This adds mystery and drama that is missing when the skies are clear. You may have to wait for that shaft of sunlight coming from underneath the storm and never get it, but the times when you are patient will often be well worth the wait.
Speaking of patience, the photo at the head of this article is an example of this. My girlfriend and I stopped by Abiquiu Lake on a trip through Northern New Mexico and enjoyed a nice evening by the shores. Initially, after the sunset, the sky was dull and uninteresting, but I told her I thought we should wait around for a few minutes just to see if a nice sunset developed. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the sky began to light up with brilliant color and become one of the most stunning sunsets that I’ve seen in a long time. Being wintertime, with the sun coming in at a lower angle (see the first tip), the show lasted several minutes. The stunning display in the sky was reflected in the waters of the lake, adding to the beauty. Had we driven off when the sun had first set and nothing much was happening, I probably would’ve been seeing that sunset in my rearview mirror and kicking myself, an experience that no landscape photographer wants. But it's so easy, especially at the end of the day, when you might be tired and hungry, to just put away the camera early. That particular day, I was grateful that I spent the extra time waiting.
Let’s face it: if you are a modern digital photographer, then post-processing is just simply part of what you’ll need to master to produce good work. In the digital world, you are not sending the film off to a lab to process, you are the lab. If this is something that you don’t love or don’t have much interest in, then one solution is to find software that makes it easier for you or is more intuitive. This is largely a matter of personal taste and may just require doing a test run on some different ones to see what makes the most sense for you and is the easiest to use. It can also be helpful to watch tutorials from experts. Learn from others who have more experience in the post-processing realm. Do whatever you need to do to embrace it. It’s part of the medium.
Don’t Try So Hard
In my younger days, I don't know how many times I wasted a beautiful morning photoshoot rushing around to find the right angle or the arrangement of elements that were in my head, instead of just simply observing and shooting what was there. This tendency led to lots of frustration and dissatisfaction. Don't get me wrong, there are times when the sun is low on the horizon and the light is magnificent and one has to move fast and make use of it. But I've found that when I approach a place or a subject with curiosity and openness instead of a mental checklist of what I want, I often come up with more interesting photos and have a much better time doing it.
Scout It Out
When possible, scout out a location beforehand. I don’t know how many times I have made the mistake of showing up at a beautiful place and subsequently coming away with mediocre shots because I just really didn’t know where the best angles were. Your chances of success go up dramatically when you can visit a location beforehand and see where the sun will be rising or setting and where some good vantage points are. If it's an unfamiliar place for you, try to block out an afternoon to check it out first.
Enjoy Being Out in Nature
This one seems so obvious. One of the best things you can do to improve your landscape photography is to just simply enjoy being out in nature. This may require being out there without your camera in hand. If you don’t enjoy the natural world and the experience of it, you are probably not going to have the strongest work, or at least you’re not going to be nearly as satisfied in producing it. Honestly, if you don't enjoy being in nature, why be a landscape photographer? So, get out and just take a hike or simply sit and enjoy a special place. It will ultimately help your landscape images be better.
Take these ideas with you next time you go out and see if you can come up with some more satisfying landscape photographs.