What makes a great photo?
I wish there was an easy answer to this. I’m sure you’d like that as well. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to start creating world-class images overnight. As with anything else in life, practice makes perfect.
The good news is that there are certain ingredients that most photos have in common. I call these the creative building blocks.
You’ll significantly improve your work by understanding (and mastering) these six elements:
What often separates experienced photographers from beginners is that they do precisely that. Simply put, they create with intention.
This article will present the various factors you need to learn to become a consistently great photographer.
Understanding the Basic Camera Settings
The camera settings are important but not critical. I know some of you will raise an eyebrow at this, but the simple truth is that you can get a great photo even when it’s not technically perfect. Sometimes you need to react quickly and don’t have time to adjust the basic settings accurately.
This does not mean you can slack when learning the basic settings. Knowing your camera in and out allows you to make smarter decisions in the field. In many cases, this can be the difference between getting the shot and not.
Understanding what the ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture (i.e., the Exposure Triangle) do to a photo is fundamental. Understanding the ideal settings and how to change them quickly is critical. There are situations where you’re not technically perfect (for example, when leaving the tripod behind), but at least you know how to make the most out of it.
The Exposure Triangle
The relationship between Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO is essential to learn, as these settings collectively form the Exposure Triangle.
Adjusting one setting affects the others, and finding the right balance among them is key to achieving the desired exposure.
For example, suppose you want to use a smaller aperture for a greater depth of field. In that case, you may need to decrease the shutter speed or increase the ISO to maintain proper exposure.
Similarly, suppose you want to freeze motion with a faster shutter speed. In that case, you may need to widen the aperture or raise the ISO to compensate for the reduced amount of light reaching the sensor.
By mastering the exposure triangle, you can effectively control the amount of light entering the camera, capture the desired level of sharpness and motion, and minimize noise, resulting in well-exposed landscape photos.
Experimentation and practice will help you better understand how these settings work together and how to achieve the desired creative effects in your landscape images.
Recommended Reading: Understanding The Exposure Triangle in Photography
Creatively Using the Camera Settings
Mastering the camera settings is fundamental for achieving well-exposed landscape photos. However, it’s not just about technical correctness; it’s also about creatively using these settings to enhance your compositions and convey your artistic vision.
Creatively using camera settings allows you to go beyond technical accuracy and infuse your images with your unique style and vision. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different combinations of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO to achieve the desired creative effects.
For example, using a slower shutter speed to intentionally introduce intentional camera movement (ICM) or long exposures can add a sense of dynamism or abstractness to your images. Experiment with panning, deliberate camera shake, or capturing the movement of clouds to create unique and visually striking effects.
By combining technical proficiency with creative experimentation, you can elevate your landscape photography to new levels, capturing images that not only accurately depict the scene but also convey your artistic interpretation and evoke an emotional response from viewers.
Use the Available Light to Your Advantage
Light is an essential factor when capturing great photos. It is also a factor that beginning photographers struggle with.
Even if you’re familiar with the Golden Hour and photograph during a sunset, it doesn’t mean you have good light. It’s a common misconception that good light only comes when the skies are colorful.
The truth is that we don’t need crazy colorful skies to get good light. Good light can be found even during the middle of the day. What matters is how you use and make it a part of the photo.
Take the image above as an example. There were no spectacular light conditions, and it was captured midday while the light was harsh. Yet, it turned out to be a good photo.
What matter is how the light was used. In this case, what caught my eye was the darker and more dramatic clouds on the horizon. These created a fascinating contrast with the otherwise bright white landscape lit by the sun peeking through the quickly moving clouds.
In other words, the light was indeed good.
The same goes for when you’re photographing a sunset. Shooting directly into the sun will often not lead to as interesting shots as if you’d focused on how the light was cast on the landscape.
The Composition Makes a Great Photo
There’s a lot of talk about composition in the art world, and it’s not without reason, as it’s a crucial part of making a great photograph. It’s unlikely that your photo becomes anything other than a snapshot for the memory books if it lacks a good composition.
Think of the composition as the visual building bricks of a photo. It’s through this that the viewer knows what to look at.
As the photographer, you must be aware of your image’s composition. You must understand how the various elements work together (or against each other) to guide the viewer through the photo.
This is arguably the most challenging aspect of creating a great photograph and requires the most time to understand. Mainly because there are so many elements to remember, and it’s easy to miss distracting factors.
What Makes a Good Composition in Landscape Photography?
You might already know compositional techniques such as the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. These are valuable guidelines to understand, but they barely scratch the surface when creating compelling compositions.
In fact, many of the best images break these so-called rules.
Remember that there’s a difference between deliberately going against a guideline and doing it out of unawareness.
As I mentioned above, the composition is the visual building bricks of the photo. The difference between composition in landscape photography and, for example, studio photography is that we have much less control over the elements in front of us. We can’t move a mountain because it’s slightly unaligned with our foreground (well, that’s why we have Photoshop, right?)
That means that we must carefully consider which elements within our frame contribute to the image and which distract. It’s a challenging task that requires you to slow down.
There are countless factors that play an important role when it comes to creating a good composition in photography. While I won’t go into detail on all of them right now, I want to mention some that are particularly important to understand:
- Leading Lines and Visual Pathways
- Foreground Interest
- Light and Contrast
- Colors and Tonal Contrast
Understanding and applying these compositional techniques are vital to making a great photo. Remember that these guidelines are not strict rules but rather tools to assist you in creating captivating and well-balanced compositions.
Ultimately, developing your own creative eye and experimenting with different compositional elements will allow you to capture landscapes that are not only visually stunning but also uniquely represent your personal vision and style.
Your Vision is Your Most Important Tool
Making a great photo requires more than just firing away and hoping to get something. It’s about executing your vision. This can be the result of long periods of planning or an idea emerging looking at a landscape for the first time.
But the creation of the photo begins long before you look through the viewfinder, even before you’re in the field.
Developing a unique vision and personal style is essential for creating a great photo. It involves finding your own voice and expressing your creative ideas through your images. Take the time to explore different landscapes, experiment with various techniques, and reflect on what inspires you.
This process will help you develop a distinctive approach that sets your work apart and allows you to communicate your artistic vision to the viewer.
By focusing on developing your unique vision, understanding the subject, conveying emotions, and capturing moments, you can elevate your landscape photography from mere documentation to powerful storytelling. Each image becomes an opportunity to share your perspective and invite the viewer into the world you’ve captured.
Do you know what your vision is? Do you know how to create images that convey it? This is where photographing with intention comes into the picture.
Create Your Signature Style Through Post-Processing
The groundwork in the field is essential when making a great photo, but post-processing is just as important. This is often the step where a photographer finds their signature style or identity.
I know it can be daunting, but if you’re serious about your photography, you need to learn it.
Now, you don’t need to go all out in Photoshop or other advanced photo editing tools. It’s not about doing as much as possible. Even simple adjustments to color and contrast have a significant impact.
How much or little you choose to do is completely up to you. Just understand that post-processing plays a major role in creating your style. Think about your favorite photographers too. You can recognize their work pretty quickly, not just based on the scenes and compositions but also the color and atmosphere, which often is perfected in the digital darkroom.
Color and Contrast
Adjustments to color and contrast are the quickest and easiest to apply. Most basic photo editing tools have Temperature, Tint, Saturation, Vibrance, and Contrast sliders. These are relatively easy to understand and, for those reluctant to learn more about image editing, can be enough to bring life to an otherwise dull photo.
While these are great tools for beginners, I recommend that you also learn to use the slightly more advanced tools that give you even greater control over how color and contrast are presented in the photo.
The Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders in Adobe Lightroom help increase or decrease contrast and exposure. The Color/HSL tab is essential for any color work.
You can use Luminosity Masks or Color Range Masks in Adobe Photoshop to get even more control over where adjustments are applied (known as local or targeted adjustments). Even better, you can combine those with the more basic global adjustments in Adobe Lightroom.
Want to learn more about processing in Adobe Lightroom? Then check out our comprehensive eBook and Video Course: Mastering Adobe Lightroom Classic.
As landscape photographers, we don’t have the privilege of starting with a blank canvas. We have to work with whatever is in front of us. However, the true power of post-processing is that we can further enhance those elements.
Shaping and directing light is a big part of this. Look at this as a way to better guide the viewer through the photo by enhancing elements presented in the scenery.
There are many ways that this can be done. Dodging and Burning is a popular technique for brightening and darkening specific parts of the image. However, even a subtle vignette can make a difference in how the photo feels.
Take the image above as an example. While the trunks in the front were naturally darkened, I spent time working on the light coming from the back. By illuminating particular parts of the trees and moss and enhancing the fog in the upper center, I shifted the focus away from the less essential trunks and towards the more interesting trees in the back.
All I did was make some very simple enhancements to what was already in the scene. But those slight adjustments made a big difference, and it now has more of my style attached to it.
What is Too Much Processing?
Post-processing is, in many ways, a sensitive topic. You often hear photographers talk about others’ work as “over-processed” or “fake.” I’m a bit tired of hearing talk like this.
It’s your work. YOU decide how much or how little you want to process your photos. YOU decide if you’re ok with replacing skies or adding other elements to the shot.
What is essential is being aware of what you’re doing. If it’s what you aim for, there’s nothing wrong with having a grungy and saturated look, just as there’s nothing wrong with having a natural look if that’s your goal.
It all comes back to what I discussed earlier; you must create with intention. In this case, it means to be aware of the adjustments you make. Don’t just drag sliders randomly or let the software process for you.
Curating is What Makes You Consistent
Curation is a topic that needs to be talked about more. It’s one of the most important aspects of becoming a skilled photographer.
We all wish that every image we take is excellent. But that’s far from the truth. It’s unrealistic. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned professional doesn’t matter; most images will never see the day of light.
The images in our portfolios or shared online only represent a tiny percentage of the photos we’ve taken. Those images are carefully selected because they meet specific criteria we set for ourselves.
Now, curating doesn’t only happen in front of the computer. It also takes place in the field. Again, it comes back to awareness and photographing with intention.
There are a lot of beautiful scenes out there, but the truth is that not all of them will fit into your style. Heck, not all of them are even photogenic. Simply pointing your camera toward something pretty doesn’t automatically make it great artwork.
By being selective with what you photograph, you can create a more consistent portfolio. In other words, a viewer can recognize your photographs based on the subject, the compositions, the light, or the processing.
There’s no right or wrong here. It’s simply about curating your work to create a high-quality portfolio.
It’s this process that often separates the good from the great. But it takes a lot of work. You have to be hard on yourself when culling through your work.
There’s no simple recipe to follow that results in a great photo. It requires good old-fashioned hard work. But by following the six creative building blocks explained above, you’re one step closer to creating consistent, high-quality images.
Learn and understand the basic camera settings and how you can use them to create not only technically perfect images but visually pleasing ones too. Pay attention to light and create a composition that best conveys the landscape in front of you. Remember to stay true to your vision and apply your signature style in your post-processing workflow. Finally, accept that not all photos are great. Be hard on yourself and select only your best work to share.
Ultimately, the most important factor is to have fun. Don’t let photography become a routine. Enjoy the process, and the results will follow.
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