If you’re first starting out in landscape photography, you probably have a lot of questions. It isn’t always an intuitive field, and not everyone finds a connection to it. That said, landscape photography is such a rewarding pursuit that many photographers want to learn more tips and techniques to practice it as well as possible. In this article, I’ll share some of my top landscape photography tips for beginners, including some suggestions that might fly in the face of what you’ve heard before. Hopefully, you learn something that helps you out along the way.
1) Don’t follow the rules of composition
Some photographers say that there are rules of composition in landscape photography. Are they correct? Don’t take everything at face value.
When creativity is involved, it is easy to fall back on basic tips and suggestions that simplify things. But the problem with many of these tips is that they oversimplify a remarkably complex process. Even the famous “rule of thirds” does this, distilling a deeply personal process down into an impersonal grid. Take a look at the work of a master photographer like Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell — or photos by any photographer you like. Chances are good that they compose their photos based upon what looks good, not upon a pre-conceived formula.
It’s not just the rule of thirds, either. Although that is the best-known “rule,” some others pop up from time to time. So, to be clear: All of this applies equally to every such rule and special grid of composition. The golden ratio, dynamic symmetry, the rule of triangles, and so on… These are cookie-cutter formulas that sound fine on paper, and might work as basic tips for beginners, but have no relevance for advanced creative photography.
That’s because composition should change vastly from photo to photo. It strongly depends upon the scene in front of you, as well as your personal style as a photographer.
Think about a practical example. For one photo, you might want to capture the chaos and intensity of an afternoon storm. For another, your goal could be to convey the quiet stillness of a mountain sunrise. To think that both of these scenarios require the same composition — even assuming that you’re at the same landscape — overlooks the purpose of composition in the first place: to convey your chosen message to a viewer.
A better rule is simple: Compose every photo so that it looks how you want. First, define your goal for the photo. Then, take the elements in a scene that matter the most, and emphasize them however you see fit in order to meet that goal. Walk forward and backward; move your camera up, down, and sideways. Choose your technical settings and camera equipment in a way that advances the creative message you’re trying to get across. After that, just take the photo.
2) Take a lot of photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” He was a street photographer, but it’s also true for landscape photography. As redundant as it sounds, taking photos is the best way to take better photos. Spend as much time as possible behind the camera.
That’s not all that matters, of course. It’s also crucial to look at your best images, and then ask yourself questions. What makes them work so well, and would you do anything differently next time? Make a mental note of everything you can. That’s even true for your bad photos — they are perhaps the best tool at your disposal for learning where you can improve the most.
If many of your photos are either too bright or too dark, you should work more on your exposure skills. If you aren’t capturing quite the sharpness that you want, figure out what needs fixing. Or, if you’ve mastered all that, but your landscape photos just don’t have enough of an emotional impact, you need to pay more attention to light, subject, and composition.
I take as many photos as possible every year. All of this practice adds up, and, over time, it’s easy to see some of the areas where I’ve improved (and what I still can do better). Quite simply, your work will get stronger and stronger as you keep taking pictures. This is one of my favorite landscape photography tips, since it’s something you’re already doing. Yet, it’s still one of the most powerful ways to improve.
3) Ruthlessly critique
Not only should you take a lot of photos, but you need to be critical of the photos that you take. This isn’t always fun or easy, but it’s how you recognize your mistakes and keep improving.
Even if I’m planning to delete a photo, I always take a few seconds to study it carefully. I ask myself why I’m deleting it. The goal is to avoid making the same mistake again. Of course, it can be very difficult to critique your own photos. Even if you want to be critical, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes, when the backstory of a particular landscape photo is still fresh on your mind, it isn’t possible to see things as objectively as you may want.
What do I mean by that? Imagine that you spent a full day hiking up a mountain, then camped overnight and took a photo of the Milky Way. It may not be one of your all-time best photos, but it feels like it should be. After all, it was incredibly difficult to take!
When you’re sorting through your photos later, that Milky Way photo will pop out, simply because you remember all the difficulties of capturing it. I know from experience — it’s impossible to give photos like that an accurate review. Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re not. But if the experience is still clouding your thoughts, it can be very difficult to tell.
The best thing you can do is to wait until your emotions from capturing the photo have started to subside. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. The longer you wait, though, the easier it is to see photos for their own merits.
Or, you could show your work to another photographer. Posting them online isn’t always ideal — especially on apps like Instagram — but many people enjoy sharing their work on dedicated photography forums. Of course, you also can talk to photographers who you already know and get their opinions as well. Either way, it can help to hear a third-party critique of your photo; you might see things that you didn’t notice at first.
You don’t have to do any of this if it doesn’t sound appealing. What matters, instead, is that you come up with a way to look specifically for issues with your work, including some of your best photos. It can be a harsh process, but it’s also the best way to avoid repeating a simple mistake in the future. For many people, that’s an important goal — continuing to improve your work and your abilities over time.
4) Bring a tripod
Everywhere you go, bring along a tripod.
For a landscape photographer, this is perhaps the most important piece of equipment you can own. Tripods improve the image quality of every photo you take. They stabilize your camera and let you take long-exposure photos once it gets dark, providing the best image quality that your camera can offer.
It’s simple: if you plan to take landscape photos, you should carry a tripod. I always do, whether I’m taking pictures in my backyard or on a long hike through the mountains. No, tripods aren’t fun to use; they’re heavy and expensive. Still, they are a vital part of landscape photography, and you should carry one even if you’re trying to go lightweight.
Which tripod should you get? That all depends upon your budget. Eventually, if you stick with landscape photography, you’ll probably want a good carbon fiber tripod. They’re the best combination of study and lightweight, but also very expensive. Until then, get one that works (but doesn’t break the bank), and don’t replace it until you’re ready to upgrade to your dream tripod.
Especially when you’re starting out, the specific tripod isn’t all that important. A basic tripod will have some significant issues, but even it is a thousand times better than nothing. Get in the habit of using one, and you’ll know soon enough whether it’s worth getting a high-end model down the road.
And, as much as you might hate carrying it around at first, you’ll grow to love your tripod. Personally, I’m at the point where it feels strange to take a photo without one. The tripod has become a part of my thought process — a starting point that makes every other part of photography far easier and more natural.
5) Know your camera
Usually, landscape photography is very slow-paced, and the scene in front of you doesn’t move much at all.
Sometimes, though, you’ll end up photographing a crazy storm that’s breaking overhead, or a beam of light that lands for half a second in the perfect position. You’ll see an amazing breaking wave, or a spectacular explosion of lava, or a rainbow fading in the distance. Landscapes move slowly, until they move really quickly all at once.
When that moment happens — and it’s always unexpected — you need to be ready. Most importantly, you need to know your camera. You need to know how to use it blindfolded, and you need the skills to choose the right settings as quickly as possible. The less time you spend fumbling with your camera, the more time you can spend composing your photos and capturing the shot you have in mind.
How often will you find yourself in these types of situations? Personally, I find that amazing, unexpected events like this happen only a few times every year. It isn’t common at all. But, if you can make the most of fast-changing landscapes, you’ll end up with some of your best photos.
You won’t always react quickly enough to get every shot you want, and the photos you miss will haunt you. I can think of several photographs, for me, that are the “ones that got away.” Even though I know how to set my camera and use it quickly, I miss about a third of photos in fast-moving situations like this. I’m trying to get that figure down to 0%, and, until I do, there’s always room to improve.
Every time that you take landscape photos, you should have a plan in case something crazy starts to happen. Do you know what exposure mode you’ll use? Have you practiced changing lenses quickly (and without dropping them)? These are basic things that take too much time for many photographers, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Again, this is something that takes practice, but it also takes the right mindset. If you’re always ready to jump into action, you’ll capture the shot that everyone else missed. The better you know your camera, the fewer opportunities that will slip away.
Good landscape photography tips can be hard to find, and it’s true that these are all just quick suggestions. Still, my hope is that you’ll find some of them useful and be inspired to use them in your own photography. Also, if you feel like you’ve mastered these tips, and you’re ready to take things another step farther, you might also want to read my article on advanced landscape photography tips.
Landscape photography is wonderfully fun, and it’s even better when you actually end up capturing the image you had in mind. These tips are a good place to start, and, even if you just focus on one of them, my hope is that you’ll see the quality of your landscape photos improve. No matter what, though, especially if you’re just starting out in landscape photography, I have no doubt that many exciting experiences await you in the future.