Fundamentally, landscape photography is about the landscape that you capture. Although your subject isn’t the only important part of a photo — light and composition are also crucial — it is the cornerstone of a successful image. Even the best photographers in the world need to capture interesting subjects, or their work won’t have any appeal. In the article below, I’ll cover some of the top tips to finding great subjects for landscape photography, from in-depth planning to scouting for locations.
1) Finding Locations in the First Place
If you’re planning a landscape photography trip to Iceland, but you don’t know anything about Iceland, what would your first step be?
Personally, like many photographers, I would begin by looking for locations online.
To start, you could scour some popular sources of photographs — 500px, Flickr, and even Instagram — to find the high-popularity, frequently-captured landscapes that every photographer loves to visit. I see this as the “skimming the surface of a location” step, which is actually quite important.
Although many photographers value unique landscapes and finding locations for themselves, there’s nothing wrong with visiting some of these popular scenes if you find them particularly interesting. What I don’t recommend, though, is turn this “surface-level landscapes” list into your only to-do list. Instead, try to look beyond the ten most popular scenes and find other beautiful landscapes as well.
Personally, when I traveled to Iceland a couple years ago, I bought books about the country (some several decades old) with photos of locations that aren’t nearly as popular. I read travel and hiking blogs rather than photography websites, looking for snapshots of landscapes that aren’t on most photographers’ radars. I even searched Google Earth for roads and trails that looked promising, trying to get a feel for the country long before I actually visited it.
All of that paid off. In the end, I certainly visited some popular locations, but I also saw beautiful places that aren’t nearly as well-known. Just because a landscape is famous doesn’t mean that it’s the top spot to take pictures. Sometimes, it’s only popular because it’s easy to reach. By looking beyond the surface of a landscape, you’ll capture photos that are as good as they can possibly be.
In my experience, one of the biggest secrets to landscape photography is scouting.
Before I knew any better, my landscape photography routine would look something like this: First, I would search for photos of a location online. Then, I would plan to visit that location at sunset. I’d show up an hour early, look for some compositions, and — if all goes well — stand in a great place to capture the light.
Is there something wrong with this method? Although it sounds like it would work, and it often does work, there’s a better way to do things: Spend more time scouting.
If you show up at a location only an hour ahead of time, it’s almost impossible to explore beyond the surface of the landscape. This is particularly true for famous places — you’ll end up taking the same shot as everyone else, since you simply don’t have the time to plan something unique.
So, how should you scout for locations?
The real key is to spend as long as possible exploring. There’s no way around that. If you show up at a location multiple times, keeping in mind the best possible photo that you could take there — and the weather conditions that would make it happen — you’re on the right track.
There’s a reason why Ansel Adams took some of the greatest photos of Yosemite Valley in the world: He spend 50 years capturing them! More than perhaps anyone else, he knew exactly how the landscape would look under any conditions. If something spectacular was happening — say, a dramatic winter storm — he knew exactly where to stand and what to capture.
Scouting is all about preparation. You should know a landscape so much that, no matter the conditions, you’ll have a good idea of what to photograph. If a rainbow appears behind you, you should know exactly where to run and capture it. If lightning is striking in the distance, you should have a foreground in mind instantly.
Good scouting takes time. Sometimes, you may need to revisit the same location over and over in order to capture the best possible photo of a scene. I’ve visited some landscapes at least a dozen times before capturing the shot I really wanted, and many other photographers do the same.
So, what if you don’t have much time at a location? For example, if you’re traveling, and you only have a day to spend at a particular landscape?
In that case, scouting is more important than ever! Personally, I would look at the weather forecast throughout the day. If there’s going to be snow, or a storm, or interesting clouds at sunset, I would want to know. Then, I would spend as much time as possible at a single location — most likely, one I read about or saw earlier — walking around and searching for all the photographic possibilities. With the weather forecast in mind, I would pick out a few different compositions, each ideal under certain conditions, and refine my framing while I wait. Then, when conditions improve, I would take the photo, potentially alternating between the compositions I had scouted at first, or possibly sticking to a single one if it happened to be clearly better than the others.
This is exactly how I took the photograph below, as I’ve written about before. In this case, I was taking pictures of some distant farmhouses and hills, when a rainbow quickly appeared. Since I had scouted the area already, I knew exactly where to run and capture it in time. The final photo wouldn’t have happened without this planning:
Other times, scouting is much simpler. At the Grand Tetons, I knew that I wanted a photo with a beautiful sunset over the mountains. After scouting for locations at mid-day, I found a composition with an interesting river in the foreground. The sunset that night was bland, but the clouds the next day looked promising. Since I already had this location in mind, it was simple to capture a good composition when the light was right:
Scouting is all about being prepared for any conditions that you encounter. You can refine your compositions, discover hidden subjects, and, most importantly, create a plan for what to shoot.
When you have an “end result” photo in mind, you can make it a reality.
3) Overlooks and Trails
Some of the most popular landscapes in the world are found at overlooks. Think about places like Glacier Point or Tunnel View in Yosemite — often, overlooks are popular because they are beautiful and easy to access. Yet, at the same time, overlooks can be very limited places for landscape photography.
For starters, if you’re the type of person who likes taking unique photos, overlooks may not be your cup of tea. The really popular viewpoints have been captured countless times already, and, most likely, other photographers have seen them under more spectacular lighting conditions than you. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to capture an overlook in a unique way, but it can be very difficult. (Whether or not you care about taking unique photos is a different matter.)
However, there’s another problem with overlooks — one that matters to almost every photographer. At many overlooks, you only have a limited number of compositional opportunities. You can use a telephoto or a wide-angle, take a photo at night or during the day, capture the landscape under a storm or a clear sky… but, often, you can’t move your tripod more than a few meters in any direction.
That’s why, when people ask me for advice on capturing good landscape photos, I always recommend trails instead. When you go on a trail, the entire world is your playground. Trails open the door to hundreds of potential subjects, including some unique shots that only a few other photographers might notice. And, of course, you have the flexibility to position your tripod wherever you want. My favorite trails are off-trails, where you can wander around with total freedom and flexibility, not confined to a specific path or a single viewpoint.
I do realize that this is a bit of an extreme distinction. Sometimes, you’ll end up on a trail to an overlook, for example, or at an overlook that lets you walk around for multiple perspectives. Those can be fantastic for landscape photography! As I see it, though, a trail for a trail’s sake is one of the best places you can be for landscape photography.
When you hike along in a beautiful location, you’ll automatically gravitate to beautiful spots along the way.
Finding beautiful landscapes is something that you’ll get better and better at over time. With practice, you’ll be able to identify beautiful subjects and know exactly when to capture them, even after seeing only a few snapshots of a scene online.
In fact, online research is one of the first steps to taking great photos. Although you certainly should look for popular landscapes that everyone captures, you should also try to find hidden scenes that are more obscure. Popularity and beauty don’t always go hand-in-hand, and you’ll be able to plan for some great locations ahead of time if you look off the beaten path.
When you ultimately go out to take pictures, be sure to spend as much time as possible in a landscape, and truly get to know it. The more times that you visit a location, the better your photos will be. You’ll notice new compositions and interesting subjects, and you’ll know exactly what to capture when conditions change. Scouting is about familiarizing yourself with a landscape, and it’s perhaps the best way to elevate your photos from a snapshot to something amazing.
And, finally, give yourself flexibility when you take photos. The easier it is to explore a place — again, trails rather than overlooks — the more likely you are to find something great. Yes, you can capture beautiful photos anywhere, but it’s always best to have as many options at your disposal as possible. Landscapes are meant to be wandered and explored rather than captured from a single viewpoint from afar.
If you employ these three tips, you’ll be well on your way to finding amazing locations and capturing the best possible landscape photos.