National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson once advised, “If you want to get better pictures, stand in front of better stuff.” As vacation season approaches, many of us will have the opportunity to stand in front of better stuff, whether in national parks or far-flung destinations. Let’s look at some ways to improve your photography.
Start with an Attitude Adjustment
Before getting into specifics, let’s start with an attitude adjustment. You’re going to be making pictures, not taking pictures. What’s the difference? Taking pictures is passive. You react to whatever is in front of you that attracts your attention and snap the shutter without thinking. Making pictures is a creative act, and you’re in charge of every aspect of that process. You learn how your camera works by reading the manual and/or watching a YouTube video. You make deliberate choices about each of the components of the creative triangle—light, composition, and subject. You experiment, take risks, and, above all, have fun.
The Creative Triangle
It really is all about the light. The word “photography” derives from Greek and means “drawing with light.” Without light you don’t have a photograph, and it’s the quality of the light that determines the result when you snap the shutter.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times for landscape photography. Just before sunrise, the sun’s indirect rays suffuse the landscape with a mysterious blue hue. As the sun begins to peek above the horizon the sky lights up with dramatic reds, golds, and pinks. This recurs at sunset, in reverse order.
Photographers refer to these as the “magic” or “golden” hours, when the sun is low to the horizon and the light is warm and soft, with no harsh shadows. Of course, this describes ideal conditions. Actual conditions vary tremendously, depending on the angle of the sun, weather, and atmospheric conditions. Not every sunrise or sunset is spectacular; many are downright disappointing. Patience and persistence are essential to improve your photography, as conditions can change in a heartbeat.
The early mornings and late evenings that are the landscape photographer’s lot aren’t for everyone. So what do you do when you’re on vacation and you can’t be at that special location at sunrise or sunset? Here are a few suggestions for making the most of the opportunities presented to improve your photography:
- If it’s a cloudy day, you’re in luck, as clouds soften the harsh midday light. Wait for the sun to peek through and light up an interesting element of your composition to capture a striking photo.
- Approaching or receding storms create evocative landscapes. Be prepared to get out there and shoot.
- When the sun is high, concentrate on interesting details in your scene or even emphasize the stark shadows, making them your subject.
- Shoot with the sun behind you or at a 90-degree angle. A polarizing filter can help to reduce the glare and harshness of the light.
- Convert high-contrast images shot in harsh daylight to black and white for dramatic results.
Rules may be made to be broken, but often they make sense. Let’s look at some of the most common compositional guidelines:
- The rule of thirds: divide the frame into 3 horizontal and 3 vertical grids and position the subject at one of the 4 points where those lines intersect. Following this principle will help you avoid putting your subject in the center of the frame, a common tendency that usually results in a run-of-the-mill image. Many cameras enable you to superimpose a rule-of-third grid on your viewfinder or live view screen to assist with composition.
- Leading lines: these draw the viewer’s eye into the scene and toward the main subject or into infinity. The most obvious leading lines are roads, trails, fence lines, footsteps in the sand. Look around for other objects unique to the site that could function as leading lines.
- Strong foreground: while essential in landscape photography, we often neglect the foreground when we’re shooting a spectacular subject in the distance. A strong foreground draws the viewer into the image and anchors the composition.
- Sharpness: landscape images benefit from being in sharp focus throughout the frame. To achieve this you will need to use a small aperture, usually somewhere between f/16 and f/22, although you should experiment with your lens to see what works best for you. The topic of hyperfocal distance—the exact spot to focus for maximum sharpness depending on lens focal length and aperture—is the subject of numerous articles and videos, but a simple rule of thumb is to focus about one third of the way into the frame.
- Position: move around and experiment to find the best angle for your composition. Try getting down low and shooting upward, or finding a high vantage point from which you can shoot down.
These rules serve as useful starting points for composing your image. If they make you stop and think about your composition and experiment with different possibilities, they will have served their purpose. Then, by all means, break them in the interests of creativity. There are 2 rules, however, you should never break:
- Border patrol: before pressing the shutter, scrutinize the edges of your frame for any extraneous objects—leaves, wires, branches, people, etc. It’s easier to get this right in the camera than try to crop out unwanted clutter after the fact.
- Turn around: after you’ve shot to your heart’s content in a particular spot, turn around to see whether there might just be something even more interesting in the other direction.
Isn’t the subject of a landscape image the landscape? The answer is “yes, and….” Landscape photographers try to identify what it is that draws them to a particular scene and to capture in a 2-dimensional medium the feeling evoked by a 3-dimensional scene. That’s why some landscape photographers describe the third side of the creative triangle as emotion rather than subject. What do you want the viewer to feel? What do you want to emphasize in your composition that is most likely to evoke that feeling? If you consider these questions as you compose your images, you’ll improve your photography and become a more thoughtful and, ultimately, a better photographer.
One final suggestion to improve your photography: a tripod is the landscape photographer’s best friend. Don’t leave home without it!