There’s no doubt that there’s an abundance of tips and tricks to improve your landscape photography available online these days. Just take CaptureLandscapes as an example; our main goal is exactly that, to help you improve your landscape photography. However, many of the tips are helps that will lead to you improving your craft over time, in the long run. In this article, I’ll focus on the things you can do to make your images look better today.
Not Everything Can be a Good Photo
The most common mistake I see amongst beginning landscape photographers is the urge to photograph everything you see. While it is important to spend a lot of time photographing and learning to know your camera, it’s equally important that you remain somewhat selective of what you choose to photograph – or at least of what you choose to share and add to your portfolio.
Unfortunately, beautiful and photogenic aren’t always the same thing. Rather than just pointing your camera towards anything that looks pretty in hopes of capturing a good shot, slow down and spend some time considering the scene. What do you wish to show through the image? What’s the main subject? Is the subject easy to see? Can you see a good composition? Does the light help the scene? Are there any distracting elements? Is it worth a shot? These are all questions you should ask yourself before pressing the shutter button as they will make you more aware of what you’re photographing and force you to slow down.
The fact that something beautiful isn’t necessarily photogenic is something that never gets easier. It’s hard to be at a beautiful place which has amazing light but despite that, there are no good images to be taken; either there are no good compositions, there’s no natural flow in the image or perhaps there are too many distracting elements so you’re not able to emphasize the main subject.
Understanding that not everything can turn out to be a good photo is an important step in improving your craft. It might be frustrating but by being more aware and selective of what you’re photographing, you’ll quickly see that the overall standard of your images will take a big leap ahead.
Straighten the Horizon
Leaning horizons are one of the biggest giveaways that someone is new to photography. If there’s only one thing you should do to make your images look better starting right now, it is to make sure that the horizon is always straight! While there are some scenarios where a leaning horizon might be beneficial for the image, those are few and far between; you should always make sure that it’s straight.
Some cameras, such as the Nikon D810 and Canon 5D Mark III, have a built-in Virtual Horizon or Electronic Leveler. This is a function that’s most common amongst top-end cameras but don’t worry, there’s a small and cheap accessory you can use to ensure you always have a straight horizon: a Hot Shoe Level.
A hot shoe level is a useful gadget when you’re using a tripod for your photography as you can easily refer to it when framing your image. If you’re not using a tripod, however, make sure that you’ve activated the Grid View in your camera’s viewfinder or in Live View and use the vertical lines to see if the image is straight.
Avoid Centering the Horizon
Continuing on the subject of horizons, the next thing you should do is to avoid placing the horizon in the center of the frame. This is a very simple yet effective compositional technique which you should consider before capturing an image.
Even though I don’t necessarily recommend to strictly follow the Rule of Thirds, it’s important to know of it and how it may benefit your image. Try placing the horizon along one of the horizontal guidelines, or at least below or above the center. Placing it dead center is distracting to the image’s natural flow and the viewer gets a sense of unnatural separation.
That being said, if you’re photographing a subject such as reflections, breaking this “rule” can be beneficial – just make sure it feels natural to the composition.
Delegate the Space
What’s the most visually pleasing subject of the scenery in front of you? Is it the beautiful flowers in the foreground? The clouds? A stream? Whatever it is, it’s this subject which should fill the main part of the image.
Let’s look at the image below as an example. This night there was a unique display of Northern Lights above my hometown of Kongsberg in Norway. A display as powerful as this is extremely rare in my part of Norway so, of course, I was prepared and ready to photograph this phenomenon. Since this is a rare happening in my town, I knew I wanted to capture an image of the dancing light above the city itself. When framing my image, I could have tilted the camera forward and included more of the city lights but that would mean that the Aurora would get less attention – which is not what I wanted.
Instead, I chose to tilt the camera upward and only let a small portion of the image include the city lights; instead, the magnificent Northern Lights filled the majority of the frame.
That being said, you shouldn’t forget about the composition and the overall appearance of the image. If the sunset is amazing and the sky is deep red, that doesn’t mean that you should just point the camera up and fill the frame with the sky – you still need a flow and purpose in the image. Just be aware of what’s the main part of the image and make sure that it’s easy to understand.
Had I tilted the camera down for the image above and included less Aurora but more city lights, it’s no longer the Northern Lights which would be the main focus of the image – the city would.
Photograph in the Right Light
Light plays an important part in photography; without it, there’s no image to be captured as the camera’s job is to register the light.
The next big mistake I see commonly made amongst beginning photographers is the lack of understanding of light. As I mentioned before, beautiful doesn’t mean photogenic; this also counts for the light. For an image to stick out and be more appealing, it’s important that it’s captured during the right light. In the wrong light, the image can look harsh, flat or just not pleasing to look at.
So what is the right light? I often hear that good images are only captured during the Golden Hour. While this period offers a soft light that can lead to beautiful images (a large portion of the images in my portfolio are captured during this time), it’s far from the only time you can capture good images.
The truth is that good images can come during any hour of the day – the most important factor is how the light affects your subject and how you take advantage of it.
For example, photographing a waterfall midday during a cloudless day is far from ideal as the light is hard and the water loses its visual appeal. Ideally, this image should be captured when the light is softer (either due to the sun’s low position or a gray sky). But there are other great shots waiting to be captured during the daytime – it’s just a matter of understanding how to benefit from it.
Consider this the next time you’re out photographing: How is the light impacting the image? By being more aware of this question, you’ll become more selective of the photographs you capture and continue growing as a photographer.
Be Conscious About the Settings
I know it’s tempting to just pull out the camera and shoot in every direction but good images rarely come as a result of this.
While I believe using Semi-Automatic Modes in the early stages can be a good way of understanding the fundamental settings, I strongly recommend that you at least begin flirting with Manual Mode as soon as possible.
When you’ve got a better understanding of how the ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture work, I urge you to be more conscious about them when you’re in the field. Take the time to consider their impact on both the image and each other. Are you using the optimal settings? If not, what are they?
This shouldn’t come at the cost of losing a good image but the more you practice them, the more natural it feels. Try arriving on location earlier than you normally would and spend time playing around with the settings; this will make you more prepared when the light becomes better.
Don’t Shoot for Others
Developing a vision and style is probably the hardest part of landscape photography. With all the “photographers” and “influencers” on Social Media these days, it can be hard to take a step back and focus on what you want to photograph. It’s so easy to become hung up in the amount of “likes” you get on Instagram and it’s becoming common that people start chasing the same locations in hope of capturing the same image (or maybe even a better version) than their idols have captured before them.
Perhaps you won’t get as many likes photographing your local forest as you would if you photographed Kirkjufell in Iceland but you’ll have a unique image. You’ll have an image that you’ve created and not one which you’ve simply copied from others.
The classic locations are classics for a reason and they are indeed enjoyable to photograph but the reward is much higher when you come home from an unknown location with an image that people haven’t seen a thousand times before.