Landscape photography tips to help you avoid common mistakes
Whether you’re a keen enthusiast or aspiring pro, you’ve probably shot a few landscape images in your time. Chances are you’ve also made one or two simple mistakes that you’ve regretted later.
I’ve seen these same mistakes come up in our past landscape photography critiques too, so to help you avoid these I’m going to discuss them in more detail as well as share some of my top tips to help you overcome these same challenges.
How to improve your landscape photography
If you’re looking to improve your landscape photography, knowing what you shouldn’t be doing is just as important as knowing what you should be doing.
For example, you probably know it’s best to shoot at sunrise or sunset, but what about other times of day? And how do you plan your shot so that you’re ready to shoot at the right moment?
You also probably know you need a tripod, but what about some of the other useful equipment that could help improve your shot? Do you need any extra gear?
And when it comes to camera settings, you probably know that a slow shutter speed is the quickest way to get creative landscape photography images, but how important is aperture and depth of field and how can you use these to get even more eye-catching results?
To help you take better landscape photos I’m going to share 8 tips that will help guide you so that you can avoid some of the most common mistakes that occur when photographing landscapes.
Tip 1: Plan your shot
The mistake: Leaving things to chance
When we’re out with our camera, it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of our surroundings and just start shooting. And while there’s nothing wrong with shooting what you see, the reality is if you plan to come away with a good shot you usually will. This is down to the simple fact that things aren’t left purely to chance.
When I plan for a landscape shot, I use several different apps to determine the best day and time to shoot. Using apps such as TPE, Photo Pills and weather apps, I know exactly what time the sun will set or rise, where the sun will be at a precise moment, what the weather will be like, and even what the tide will be if I’m shooting a seascape.
You can see exactly how I plan my landscape shots in my ‘Coastal Sunset Photography’ class.
Equipment is another important thing that needs some planning. Before you head out, make sure you’ve got everything you need — the right lenses (I once had to shoot a landscape with a 50mm lens because I forgot to pack the lens I had planned to use), lens filters, your tripod, cleaning cloths, spare batteries etc.
Tip 2: Shoot at the right time of day (and be patient)
The mistake: Not waiting for the perfect time
Often we only have a few minutes when the light is at its best to get the shot, which means there’s an element of pressure when it comes to photographing landscapes.
Don’t let that throw you off. Yes, we can check the time of sunset or sunrise, because, as any photographer will tell you, the best time of day to shoot landscape photography is during the ‘Magic Hour’, but there are also other times that can give some great light.
Often 20 minutes before sunrise or 20 minutes after sunset can give some fantastic light for landscape photography — that’s when you get that twilight blue in the sky. So don’t just rush to get the shot and go; a little patience can go a long way.
Tip 3: Choose the right settings for your shot
The mistake: Shallow depth of field and fast shutter speeds
In many of the images seen in our live critique shows, I’ve seen landscape images with shallow depth of field and fast shutter speeds. And while this isn’t wrong, it doesn't always give the best results.
Let’s start with aperture. Generally, when looking at landscapes, we want to see the maximum amount of detail possible, which means smaller apertures are usually the best option. This allows the viewer to really explore the scene and appreciate every detail.
However, as always, there are exceptions to this. A shallow depth of field can be effective for close-up detail shots (for example a single rock with a wave breaking over it). Although we tend to go for wider shots for landscapes, close-ups can be a good option if you find your scene lacking interest.
When it comes to shutter speed, this depends largely on what you’re shooting. To capture a sense of movement, whether it be water, clouds moving across the sky or even grass moving in the breeze, try using a slow shutter speed for a long exposure.
Adding a sense of movement can be a good way to capture the essence of the scene and can often give some really interesting results. You can see how to use slow shutter speeds in my ‘Perfect water Motion’ class and 'Sunset Seascape Photography' class.
Tips 4: Focus on the composition
The mistake: Shooting what you see
When you arrive at a location it’s easy to feel the pressure — the light is changing, you need to get set up, and if you miss the shot there’s no going back. But instead of rushing to get your camera out and frame up your shot, take your time.
By arriving a bit earlier (I often get to the location about an hour before the time I plan to shoot), you’ll be able to walk around a bit, explore different angles and shooting positions, and consider your composition more carefully.
Look for elements that will lock your viewer in the shot. Techniques like leading lines and Hogarth curves are just some of the ways we can do that. This is something that I cover in many of the landscape critique shows and in the video below.
Tip 5: Focus on a key element
The mistake: Getting lost in the big picture
This mistake often comes about as a result of the previous point. If you don’t carefully plan your composition, it’s easy to end up with a shot that’s full of nothing.
To avoid this, make sure there’s an element of interest to focus on. For example, look for interesting rocks or branches to include in the foreground, a car, person or bicycle moving through the frame, or even birds in the sky.
Or, if there isn’t something to focus on, think about finding things or moving things into a position to add interest ( cover this more in the next point). This is something I’ve done for multiple shots, where I’ve found driftwood up the beach and placed it in my shot or moved an interesting boulder to a key place in my composition.
If these elements aren’t an option, this is where you could consider doing a more close-up shot. These shots can be a great alternative and often result in some really interesting detail studies.
Tip 6: Make the shot happen for you
The mistake: Taking the scene as it is
Landscape photography is, in some ways, not too dissimilar from portrait or product photography. To make a shot work, we have to create it.
In portrait and product photography we can create the best lighting, adjust the position of the model or subject, and decide whether or not to include props.
We can do all of this with landscape photography too, although admittedly it isn’t always as easy. We ‘control’ our lighting by choosing the time of day we shoot at and by using filters, and we can adjust the position of items within the frame through our composition.
What we can also do, which many people don’t seem to think about, is purposely include elements to enhance the shot, thereby choosing our ‘props’. This might involve wetting boulders, moving branches or rocks, or asking friends to strategically stand in the shot.
Nothing is stopping us from making a shot work, but, of course, we do need to be considerate of the environment. I’m not condoning destroying or damaging an area for the sake of getting a shot.
Tip 7: Consider the viewer’s experience
The mistake: Being too present in the moment
It’s easy to forget that photography is a two-dimensional medium, especially when you’re caught up in the moment of a shot.
As photographers, we get to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a shot — birds chirping as the sun rises, the smell of the salt as waves splash against the rocks — which makes it easy to forget that the viewer can’t.
Often we take a shot that has more meaning to us because we were there than it does to the viewer, so we need to think about how we can incorporate these elements in an image.
Images shouldn’t just be pretty, they should also tell a story. So look around you when you set up your shot and think about what you can incorporate to make it a more well-rounded visual experience.
Tip 8: Be careful, but deliberate with the post-production
The mistake: Too little or too much post-production
When it comes to retouching landscape photos I generally don’t do much to my shots, but that’s not to say that some post-production won’t benefit a shot.
Looking at the images I’ve received for our critiques, cropping is just one technique that often seems to be neglected. This might sound obvious, but you may be surprised at how this basic adjustment can really help focus the viewer and eliminate unnecessary distractions or meaningless parts of an image.
Contrast and colour adjustments are other ways we can focus the viewer’s attention. In other cases some object removal, healing and cloning might be necessary, but I personally prefer to keep things realistic and natural.
For more landscape photography tips, make sure to take a look at some of our critique show replays. Many of these points are covered in more detail and you’ll be able to see exactly how some of the changes discussed can make a big difference. Further advice for photographing landscapes can be found in our landscape photography classes and advanced photography classes.
Alternatively, if you're looking to get more creative with your landscape photography take a look at our Fashionscape course, where Karl travels to Iceland to photograph fashion in spectacular locations.