"The fact, that a technically incorrect photograph (in the conventional sense) can be emotionally more effective than a technically flawless image, will be shocking to those, who are naive enough to believe that technical perfection constitutes the true value of a photograph. A technically perfect photograph can be the world’s most boring picture." Andreas Feininger
What makes an interesting, good or even great landscape photo is highly individual and always depends on your own interests, background and desired style of photography (same applies to the viewer of an image). Some like the bold, twilight wide-angle scenes while others prefer the more subtle and intimate daylight landscape images. There is no general right or wrong. You have to define yourself what is a great photo for you. That said, when you take care of the following elements and combine all of them perfectly this should result in a stunner and touch most of the viewers in some way. But always keep in mind that the most important thing should be that you are happy with the photos you have created.
There are lots of different factors and elements which define a landscape photo. For me, the most important component is the light and the mood of an image. Depending on the photos subject the best light situation for the image can be sunrise, sunset, blue hour, daylight, overcast, fog or even rain. Scout the location in advance and previsualise the desired scenery in the best light you can imagine to tell your story of this place. Then, plan when to be there or be patient and wait for the right circumstances in the field.
The second important factor is the location itself. Of course, depending on where you live, you can take spectacular pictures in your backyard or the nearby area, but most of us have to travel to explore, see and photograph really exciting, breathtaking and eye-catching places. While traveling, don't only stop at the common viewpoints next to the road using the same tripod holes like many other photopgrahpers before you. Take your time and explore, finding your own spot and perspective and create unique and new photos. In the long run this will be more satisfying than only driving to places you probably know from other photographers and only take Collector Shots. The key is to be at breathtaking locations in the best light which often involves getting up very early (to hike up a mountain in the dark) or to camp at exposed, sometimes a little scary, places like a windy rideline or to do some long hikes deep into the remote backcountry. You sometimes have to leave your comfort zone and push and motivate yourself doing this but these are critical factors when you want to create outstanding landscape images. Note: remember that with great light you always can make a somewhat ordinary scene look specatular. Light first, scenery second.
The next huge topic is image composition. A classic approach is the wide-angle near-to-far composition using leading lines, like the classic S- or C-curve, to guide the viewer through the image. Maybe think of taking the rule of thirds into account, but remember those rules exist to be broken. Another interesting approach is to seperate single elements in the landscape (like trees in front of a mountain or a huge dune) by using telephoto lenses and create some intimate landscape shots or, in contrast, use wide-angles with an eye-catching foreground like interesting patterns or structures, flowers or reflections plus a middle-ground (like a lake or a meadow e.g.) and a background (an impressive mountain and dramatic skies e.g.). The subject-matter image composition is such a broad topic for itself that we only can scratch the surface here. You can read lots of books and online articles about composition but another good way is to shoot, experiment and test a lot and see what works for you.
After finding an awesome and unique spot, composing the image and waiting there for some magic light you also need to know the right techniques to capture the photo the way you want it to look like.
Especially when you want to license your photos for editorial or commercial use the image quality, like overall sharpness and noise, matters. For example when creating extreme near-to-far compositions it sometimes is necessary to use focus-stacking in order to get everything sharp from foreground to background. When shooting scenes with very dynamic light conditions like sunset / sunrise and the cameras sensor is not able to record the full scope of light you see with your eyes (because most of the sensors today can only record about 7-9 stops of dynamic light while our eyes can see about 11 stops of light) you'll need to know how to record the correct exposures for all areas of the image (bracketing) to capture the scene correctly (according to the histogram**) and how to manually combine them later during post-processing. You should also know when and how to use which filters in landscape photography. Especially the Polarizer* (reduce reflections on the water, enhance the manageable dynamic range, get more intense colors and contrasts (blue skies, white clouds)) and Graduated Neutral Density filters* for high dynamic range situations are important to know about and in which situations and how to use them. Before using those advanced techniques like focus-stacking and bracketing, of course, you need to know how to use aperture (F-stop), exposure and iso settings the right way and how to read the histogramm.
**hint: generally expose to the right (brighter tones (pixels) have more information to work with during post-processing which results in better image quality)
Now, that you have the basics, you can add something special to your photos like breathing on the lens during the exposure for a dreamy look for instance or move the camera during a long exposure (usually more than a second) to get a more surreal / abstract and artistic look. Another way to add something special to a photo is to be creative with extreme long exposures (30+ seconds) to smoothen water for instance or to record the clouds movement or even make the milky way visible in the night sky or record the stars movement around Polaris with a Star Trail photo. There are endless possibilities! To be able to record those long exposures (more than 30 seconds even in daylight) you need some strong Neutral Density filters* (like ND8-ND1000). In order to make your images more interesting also think about capturing special nature phenomenons like snow on the landmannalaugar mountains in Iceland for example. You have to investigate how to get there and when. Most images of those hills are taken during summer when this area in Iceland is "quite easy" accessible by car. There is only a short time window when you can capture those hills covered with a little snow. The right timing, exploring and investigation before going out to photograph is important to capture rare constellations in nature. To photograph snow covered mountains and reflections of the aurora in an unfrozen lake in the arctic you also only have a one or two week time frame and this is what makes those images rare. Beside all planning and exploring sometimes all you need is dumb luck to capture special moments in nature (like very seldom cloud formations e.g.). So, be sure to be out there a lot. As a photographer who wants to create passionate photos you have to love your subject first and spend a huge amount of time with it.
Another important element is to evoke an emotional response or a desire within the viewer. Of course, this emotional factor depends a lot on the viewer and his or her background and associations with the scene showed in the image. Some like sandy beaches others like snow covered mountains or foggy forest scenes - and some even love funny / cute cat pictures, only. You should always shoot what excites you the most because - like said above - you can only get outstanding landscape photos with a lot of passion and persistence.
The last essential element of a great photo is post-processing. Since the camera records a scene not exactly like our eye-brain combination sees a scene, all images must be processed manually. As a prerequisite you should shoot your photos in RAW (not in JPEG) to be able to adjust the exposure (+1/-1), change the white balance, correct the lens disortion (+vignette), remove dust spots, add vibrancy and sharpness and a lot more without any significant loss in image quality. With a carefully considered post-processing process you can push the image in the direction you want, like a dark mood for example (but don't make it look cartoonish or fake). Learn a lot about blending techniques, curves, layer masks and selective color adjustments and last but not least about resizing and sharpen photos for web and prints to eventually present the final photos to an audience.
Here is the compact check list of the seven essential elements of a great landscape photo:
- Light (sunrise, sunset, blue hour, daylight, overcast, fog, rain)
- Scenery (light first, scenery second, explore and find your own spots)
- Composition (leading lines, near to far, rule of thirds)
- Technique (shooting raw format, filters, focus stacking, bracketing, blending)
- Specials (weather phenomenoms, timing, moving camera during exposure)
- Emotion (evoke an emotional response within the viewer)
- Post-processing (lens disortion, curves, colors, using layer masks)
Feel free to add any comments or questions below.
You can get a lot more details, knowledge and background information about the equipment, techniques and how to use them in the field as well as a lot more detailed information about post-processing in my workshops and tours and by subscribing to my newsletter or RSS feed for more upcoming articles. You can also contact me directly with any questions.
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