Often, landscape photography tips are meant for people who are just starting out and trying to get the hang of things. That’s great in many ways, but it does carry a problem – it says to advanced photographers that there is nothing new to discover. But landscape photography is incredibly complex, and there are still techniques for everyone to learn. This article goes through some of the most important ones with regards to creativity.
Just a quick note to start: Don’t be fooled by the seemingly simple nature of some of these tips. This article doesn’t cover technical topics like hyperfocal distance, ISO invariance, or exposing to the right. Instead, it focuses more on the creative side of photography, since that is what has the greatest power to improve your photos. So, even if you have heard some of these tips before, the best thing you can do is internalize the concepts that resonate most with you and use them to improve your photos in the field.
1) Make Deliberate Time for Scouting
One of the most popular ways to find good landscape photography locations is the tried-and-true art of scouting. No doubt you’ve heard of it before. But the importance of scouting cannot be overstated – most photographers don’t give it the credit it deserves.
Until recently, I was the same way – I didn’t scout for locations at all. Instead, I just showed up at a location for sunset, usually after seeing some good pictures of it online. My photos turned out well, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. Even today, this is the process I use when I don’t have much time at a location, or I’m going on a hike that doesn’t offer me time for scouting. But if you make as much time as possible to scout for locations, your photos are likely to have a more personal and deliberate feel.
So, what does scouting entail? In landscape photography, it’s all about visiting a location and thinking ahead to your final photo before you even pull out the camera. It’s how you form your game plan to make the most of a scene. Sometimes, you might go so far as to capture the exact composition you’re hoping to use later, giving yourself time to evaluate how successful it really is.
But the big bonus is not just planning your composition; scouting also lets you use “bad light” in the best possible way. At midday, the light might be too harsh to take the landscape photos you want – but it’s the ideal time to search for new locations.
The takeaway is simple: A hike at noon can be the best way to take good photos at sunset.
Frankly, you don’t even need to bring along your camera while you’re scouting. You can leave all your equipment in the car and just hike around for a while, exploring locations and moving more quickly. Just make a mental note (or a GPS point or phone photo) of the places that you want to revisit.
Scouting has to be done in person. You can’t just scout for locations online – that’s really just background research. It is very difficult to get an accurate feel for a landscape until you visit it yourself.
My top recommendation for most advanced photographers is to take a hard look at your landscape photography habits. How much time do you spend on different tasks? Most likely, you’ll get better results by prioritizing as much time for scouting as possible.
2) Convey Emotions
When people look at one of your photos, they always have an emotional response.
Perhaps they visited a similar location, and photo reminds them of a good memory. Maybe they’re impressed by the interesting composition and overall beauty of your shot. Or, if they don’t like the photo, their emotional response could be negative, or disinterested – but they’ll always have one. You can use this to your advantage.
Next time you’re out taking landscape photos, try to pin down the emotions of your scene. Are there beautiful flowers in the foreground? Is there an ominous storm overhead? How does the landscape make you feel?
Whatever emotional response you have, try to convey it in your photo.
There are a few ways to do that. Step one is finding the right light for your message. The best light harmonizes with a landscape. It brings out the moods and emotions of your scene, creating a stronger overall picture. It doesn’t conflict with the character of the landscape itself. (For example, a saw-toothed, intense mountain landscape wouldn’t match well with gentle, pastel light.)
But you can’t just stop once you have good light. You also need to frame your photo in a way that conveys the emotions you’re after, making sure that every decision you make in the field is in service of your specific goal for an image.
A large part of this has to do with using exclusion to your advantage. If you want to emphasize the barrenness of a sand dune, compose around any footprints in the foreground. If you want to show the simple beauty of a forest scene, don’t include details that are chaotic and distracting. Even if you want to showcase the ugliness of a scene, you should use this same technique – eliminating anything that takes away from your message – to capture the look you want.
In other words, you can convey emotions in a landscape by getting rid of elements that distract from those emotions. This is a big deal. If you have a clear emotional message, your viewers will have a clear emotional response – but if your photo is veering off in too many directions, it will not look cohesive.
To see what I mean, take a look at the two photos below. In this case, the first image is a confused jumble. The second is much better, since it excludes everything that takes away from the peaceful, gentle nature of the forest:
3) Wait for Patterns
You’ve probably heard the saying that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Of course, that’s quite false. Lightning is most likely to strike the same place twice. Otherwise, we’d have to throw out our lightning rods after a storm, since they’d stop working. I’d be fine to swim in the local pool next time it starts to thunder, since it’s already been struck before!
This isn’t only true of lightning. Anything that moves has a good chance of repeating itself. The world is built on cycles and patterns. If a wave crashes ashore, another one follows. If a cloud passes overhead, a second tends to form behind it.
Maybe you didn’t capture a photo the first time, but you’ll almost always have another opportunity. I’ve seen a lot of advanced landscape photographers move along after missing a shot, not sticking around to see if the same conditions happen again.
The key is patience. You won’t always know how long it will take before a pattern repeats itself – maybe several minutes, and maybe several days. Are you willing to wait a while for something that might not even occur, at least for a long while? You’re the final judge, but, if there’s a chance you could capture a once-in-a-lifetime photo, it could be worth the effort.
When I was at Jökulsárlón lagoon in Iceland a few years ago, I saw a bird fly past a nearby iceberg. Since I was photographing landscapes, I didn’t have my camera set to a fast shutter speed, so I missed the shot. Fifteen minutes later, the same bird flew by again, and I realized it was going in circles. I set the proper exposure, waited a short while, and captured the photo I wanted when it passed by again.
Almost everything in landscape photography happens in a cycle. Birds, waves, the sun, clouds, rivers – even if some of these are not perfectly predictable, they’re all remarkably consistent.
If you ever miss the shot of a lifetime, don’t give up hope. You might be able to capture it again by waiting around for the pattern to repeat itself, or even returning to the same spot at a later date.
4) Try Something New
At some point in our lives, almost everyone falls into a creative rut. Even as an advanced photographer, this isn’t something you can avoid.
I love landscape photography, and I want to do it for the rest of my life, but I’m the same way. If I’m exhausted after a long hike, the last thing I want to do is wake up early the next day for sunrise photography. Or, sometimes, I’ll drive past a beautiful landscape, but decide not to turn back because I’m already running late for something else. If landscape photography becomes a chore rather than a way to have fun, you just won’t feel inspired to take good photos.
Maybe you’ve never experienced this, or perhaps you feel it all the time. Either way, the same tip holds true:
Trying something new might be the most fun you’ll ever have.
It’s that simple. If you want to keep up your excitement for photography – or enjoy it even more – put some effort into doing things you’ve never done before.
That could mean you visit a particular location for the first time. Or, you shoot a trip with a different set of lenses than you’d normally bring. Maybe you simply take photos at a more unusual time of day. No matter what, you won’t regret trying something new.
Before I went to Iceland on that same trip, I decided to build a custom drone and bring it along for the ride. It was far beyond my skill level, and I didn’t have a clue how difficult it would be. Leading up to the trip, I spent every hour of free time for three weeks working on the drone, and I didn’t even manage to get it off the ground until a few days before leaving.
In the end, though, it worked, and this crazy experience was one of the defining moments of my Iceland trip. It added to the fun. I felt happier and more creative, even when I wasn’t using the drone – and I have no doubt that I got better photos because of it.
You don’t need to do something this bizarre. Rent a supertelephoto for the weekend, or try light painting for Milky Way photography. Do studio photography, and learn a new Photoshop skill. The specifics hardly matter. If you do something you haven’t tried before, you’ll trick yourself out of a creative rut and improve your images along the way.
5) Form a Vision
The last tip on this list is one thing I’m always trying to improve: forming a vision.
This is different from scouting or searching for a location to take pictures. It’s more fundamental than that. Forming a vision is about deciding what you want your photo to say, and then making conscious choices to get there.
Do you want an image that showcases the gentle beauty of nature, or the harsh power of a storm? Are you trying to raise awareness for an environmental or humanitarian issue?
Whatever your goal is, here’s the kicker: Every single decision you make in the field should keep that goal in mind.
Should you pick a 14mm lens, or a 35mm? Is your composition balanced or imbalanced? Will your final image be bright, dark, or somewhere in between? What height will you place your tripod, and which elements – say, the foreground or the background – are you prioritizing in the frame?
It’s not about just what choices look the best; it’s about what choices service your vision as well as possible. The questions above might seem small and arbitrary, but they’re not. Each decision is a tiny checkmark in the “yes” or “no” column of one underlying question: Does the photo meet your goal?
Say that you want to capture the sad, solemn aftermath of a clear-cut forest. How would you proceed? You have a number of decisions to make – black and white versus color; balance versus imbalance; light versus dark; wide angle versus normal or telephoto; harsh versus subdued light; high versus low contrast; a single subject versus a pattern of several subjects; a wide aperture versus a small aperture; realism versus impressionism.
The list goes on.
If your goal is a photo that tells a cohesive story and carries a message, it helps tremendously to make all these decisions consciously. If you’re a good photographer, chances are high that you’d get a lot of it right by instinct, but there’s something to be said for slowing down and making ever step as intentional as possible. By rooting out every instance of randomness and each case of that’s-just-how-it-was, your photo will tell its story and carry its emotions with far more power. If you make the wrong decision about one variable of an image, it’s not the end of the world, but it does have the potential to make your work less powerful.
Think about the best possible photograph of a scene – the one that carries your message perfectly – and do everything in your power to make it a reality.
As an advanced photographer, it’s likely that you’re following many of these suggestions already, at least at a subconscious level. But reading about them, practicing each one, and putting deliberate effort into improving your creative skills will take your photos farther than any technical tip ever could.
The most important point of all is to keep an open mind and continue to learn new things. It doesn’t matter how advanced you are – if you have a drive to improve, you’ll improve. It can’t get any simpler than that.