Mother nature has done a great job pleasing the eye of even the most demanding landscape photographers. There are great views all around the globe waiting to be discovered. All those mountain lines, waterfalls, gorges or sandy beaches are waiting to be photographed. While there are lots of great views to shoot, those images often miss that little extra that could bring the picture alive. In this article, I’ll try to tickle your brain with a few points on how to create/capture that extra something – with your camera’s abilities or even with some (strange) object that will catch the interest of the viewer.
One trick is to play around with your shutter speed and use it to create the sense of movement in clouds or water. To be able to get this done right, you need a suitable environment (and conditions) and/or bring out the filters for your lenses. Typically a solid ND filter will do the trick. With ND filters, you can restrict the amount of light your camera is capturing and that way you are able to use a longer shutter speed to achieve the desired effect. Needless to say, this might take some practice but through trial and error you will find the balance between shutter speed along with the right aperture and ISO value and strength of filter needed to achieve the effect you are looking for. With this simple yet effective trick, you can completely change the mood of the photograph. In this shot, the water is smoothened which creates a nice effect around the stones. For this picture I selected Bulb mode and used a remote shutter release. If you want to go beyond a 30 seconds shutter speed you’ll need this small and handy tool for most DSLR’s. Don’t worry about the price – you can get one for most cameras for a very reasonable price from 3rd party manufacturers.
Another thing you can do with with seascapes is to capture motion in the water. To achieve the effect in this picture from the beach in Vik, Iceland, I used a shutter speed of 1 second. I used a 5-stop ND filter to avoid overexposure and a graduated ND filter to balance out the white of the water and sky which luckily showed this short period of magical light in this image.
This trick is widely used on smaller streams and waterfalls (take a look at our article How to Photograph Streams and Waterfalls for more information on that subject) to create the silky feeling to the water. Just play around with the combinations of shutter speed and other settings. You will get the hang of it fast and it is great fun along the way.
But what if you want to take it further? With ND filter and a long shutter speed, you can play with creative ideas. You might want to leave something, or someone, haunting around. You can capture an image with people’s movement or have them standing around to get a clear shadow of the subject, almost like they were ghosts.
I am not a huge selfie fan but here is one that I took with remote shutter release. Therecipe is really quite easy. Compose the picture before attaching your ND filter, then take a test shot with the ND filter to figure out the shutter speed (in this picture it’s 30 sec) then once you’re happy with what you are seeing, take the ghost selfie. Press shutter release – walk into the scene and stand still for a while, like 10 secs. Then you can walk away. When moving fast enough to the position and out of it, you will not be seen on your final picture except as a shadow in the spot where you made your “pose”.
As a bonus in this picture I also have stretched clouds and blurred water, so it really is a collection of the few effects I talked about earlier.
You can also do light painting. Similar techniques can be used to light up the scenery or only parts of it or just create more movements with light trails.
Bringing “artificial interest” to the pictures.
I know a lot of landscape photographers are purists and don’t want to add anything that nature didn’t create to their pictures. I usually try to avoid people on my landscape photos but whenever you place someone in your landscape you can add scale – sense of the size. For example, you can take a good shot of waterfall but, in the frame, it can look way too small especially for people that have never visited that specific waterfall. If you place someone at the bottom of the waterfall, it will instantly show the real size of it to the viewer.
Sometimes, bringing an element of surprise or something that really catches the viewer’s eye can make a difference. The biggest factor in landscape photography is the composition. But sometimes you can create the foreground and point of interest yourself. On this shot, I was walking around the rocky shores of a place called Porkkalanniemi in Finland. It had been raining for the entire day and I really wasn’t expecting the sun to come out. When it suddenly did, I was in a spot that wasn’t especially great so I decided to spice up the picture with my giant red umbrella. First of all, the color red is obviously something that catches your attention instantly; then, the object that naturally does not belong in the picture will raise viewer interest in a different way.
In the other example picture, I was quite happy with the location and reflection and even the weather conditions but yet I felt the picture was missing a point. One thing every landscape photographer should always consider when taking a shot is “What is my main subject on this shot?”. If you don’t know the answer yourself, it’s likely that you are not taking a portfolio piece. Anyway, I looked around and saw this emergency lifesaver on a rack. Luckily, I was alone on the beach so no one was about to need it. I wasn’t going in the icy water either so I decided to borrow it shortly for my shot. By placing the lifesaver in the picture, I created a point of interest to guide the viewer’s eye and hopefully managed to raise a question or bring thoughts to the viewer’s mind. It changed the mood of the photo pretty much.
With this kind of small trickery, you can try to find new angles to your photography; just don’t over-use them or it will get boring quickly. Purists of landscape photography might judge me right off the bat but I challenge you to try it out. Don’t stick only to moving clouds and smoothened waterfalls – experiment with new stuff and take that extra step; the end results might surprise you. (You can also create similar surprising elements on your post process with Photoshop but that is totally different article itself…)