Five Suggestions for Improving Your Landscape Photography

  By Brian Merry

Photography is an art, similar to drawing or painting. There will always be artists that are naturally gifted in one media or the other seemingly without much effort. For the rest of us we have to work out ways to improve our skill. A common way to get started and develop new skills in landscape photography is to mirror established pros shot for shot. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take a workshop from one of them or head out to the classic landscape locations and try to recreate their iconic photographs. By studying and adopting a few of their common techniques used to photograph the classic landscapes, such as the ones found around Banff and Lake Louise, your skill and visual perception will grow. With practice, you’ll develop your own personal style that will feel right for you, and it’ll start to flow comfortably as you express yourself.

You’ve probably noticed that some photographers seem to instinctively have that eye for a great photograph. Most of us will have to work at our photography to achieve this, but you can learn some fundamental techniques and tips that will generally improve your photography when you use them. With practice, you’ll find yourself developing your own personal style and over time become increasingly proficient in using some of the techniques I outline below. With practice your emotions will start flowing freely through yourself, your camera and into your images where viewers to feel them.

1. Light. Light is the essential element of good photography. You can learn how to create dramatic moods in your photographs by knowing how to use light by playing with it, adding and subtracting it. You should consider how many shadows you want to appear in your photograph to create a dramatic effect. When photographing landscapes one of the great tips in photography to remember is to take pictures early in the morning or late in the day during “the golden hour” after sunrise and before sunset. This beautiful and soft light, when combined with a dramatic foreground, is a common element found in landscape photographs. A quick look at a selection of Ansel Adams or David Munch photographs will demonstrate this.

2. Angle. Changing the angle of your perspective to your subject can create a more dramatic and impressive photograph as well. Ordinary photos are often taken at an angle that you would most likely see if you were standing right there in front of the subject with front lighting. Try not to be ordinary. You can determine how many shadows are in your photograph by choosing the angle between you, your subject and your main light source, which is usually the sun. If you want to improve the impact of your photographs try changing your angle to a more interesting perspective. You can add a dramatic foreground by shooting from a lower perspective, or you can shoot from above on a mountain slope, or at roadside viewpoint, to look down onto your subject. Both of these options takes the viewer away from the familiar into the unfamiliar and in the process tweaks their interest.

3. Composition. One of the most important tips in photography, and a basic one that every aspiring landscape photographer should master, is learning how to purposefully compose your photographs. One of the basic rules in composition is the rule of thirds. Although this rule is never a strict one, using it can be your foundation when creating impressive photographs. You can break it and still take impressive photos, but it is important to learn how to use the rule of thirds inside and out so you know how far you can deviate from it and still create great compositions. Studying composition through websites on landscape painting can help. Painters have the ultimate control over placing visual elements where they should be in a composition to tell a concise story. Understanding how and why they make these choices will help you subtlety compose the natural landscape in your frame to communicate a cohesive story. Understanding the principles of composition is a valuable skill to develop. Landscape photographers aren’t always at the mercy of what may lay in front of them. They may just have to put some effort into changing their position to arrange picture elements correctly.

4. In-situ frames. Framing your subject with strong visual elements is another great technique you can use to create dramatic photographs, especially when shooting a landscape. You can make use of foreground elements as ‘frames’ around your main subject. One of the most common techniques used to frame images is adding tall trees, mountain slopes, branches, tree trunks, windows or fences around the edges of the photograph.

5. Pre-visualization. Timing is also an important consideration when creating your photographs. It’s important that you’re able to capture the image exactly when the action is happening, at the moment that really tells the story about the emotion you want to convey. Often, there is no mulligan in landscape photography. If a landscape doesn’t seem lit properly, then think about when the light will be right and return to the location later to photograph it when the scene is lit how you want it to be lit.

Research is important in pre-visualization. Timing natural events like the annual Geminid meteor shower that happens every year in December is a good example. I timed my visit to Mount Fuji in Japan last year to coincide with this annual event. Some people may say that my photograph of the meteor over Mount Fuji was an incredibly lucky shot until they learn that the planning for this photograph started many months earlier when planning my trip in Japan. I knew when to be at Mount Fuji and arrived a few days early to of scout out the area and find the location with the least amount of light pollution to set up the time lapse session that captured the meteor over Mount Fuji. This photograph involved months of research and preparation to capture the right moment. With good research and skill sometimes “the stars line up” for that once in a lifetime photograph that others may simply admire as “a lucky shot.” Do the research. You are in control.

There is no secret to becoming a better photographer. The more you train your eyes to find the dominant picture elements in a scene and how they interact with each other, the better you’ll get at pre-visualizing and composing great photographs. These five habits can help you to achieve this skill faster, especially if you’re putting a sincere effort to get out and shoot, working on and practising your photographic skill.

Feel free to contact me for clarification on what I’ve written here. You can also sign up for one of my group tours, such as my Japan tour next spring, or one of my Canadian Rockies tours. The Canadian Rockies is one of the most beautiful places in the world to photograph and I love sharing my beautiful home, Banff, with others. I truly want to help you become a better photographer.

Brian Merry is offering a Lake O’Hara Workshop: Sept. 15-16th, 2013