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 in landscape photography. Are they correct? Don’t take everything at face value.
When creativity is involved, it is easy to fall back on quick tips and suggestions that simplify things. But the so-called rules of composition — including the famous “rule of thirds” — might not be as helpful as you have heard.
For just one example, in my own portfolio (here), about twelve images roughly fit the rule of thirds. And that’s using a loose definition. In reality, only about five match the rule perfectly. Out of 51 photos, that’s not very many (somewhere between 10% and 24% of the total, depending upon how strict you are).
It’s true that my photos don’t necessarily match how everyone else’s will look, or even match what other photographers are trying to achieve. It’s simply one of the more visible examples I can give. But, there are others. Take a look at the work of a master photographer like Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell — indeed, look at photos by any photographer you like. Chances are good that they don’t follow the rule of thirds very frequently at all. It just isn’t as helpful in the real world as it seems on paper.
It’s not just the rule of thirds, either. Although that is the best-known of the cookie-cutter compositions, a few others pop up from time to time. So, I’ll make my opinion clear: Everything I’ve said applies equally to every such rule in photography. The golden ratio, dynamic symmetry, the rule of triangles, and so on… Every “magic grid” out there is equally absurd.
That’s because composition is uniquely personal, and it strongly depends upon the scene in front of you.
Every time you take a photo, your goal is to convey something to a viewer — typically, to make them feel the emotions you did while you were out in the world. For one photo, you might want to show the chaos and intensity of an afternoon storm. For another, you could be trying 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.
A better rule is simple: Compose every photo so that it looks how you want. Take the elements in a scene that matter the most, and emphasize them however you see fit in order to match your goal. Walk forward and backward; move your camera up, down, and sideways. Choose your technical settings and equipment in a way that advances the message you’re trying to get across. Then, capture 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.
Spend as much time as possible behind the camera. As silly as it sounds, taking photos is the best way to take better photos.
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 would want, study camera settings. Or, if you’ve mastered all that, but your photos just don’t have enough excitement or power, you need to pay more attention to light, subject, and composition.
I take as many photos as possible every year. Over my lifetime, I can’t even begin to guess the total number. All of this practice adds up, and my photos have steadily improved over time.
Quite simply, you’ll get better and better as you keep taking pictures. This is one of my favorite landscape photography tips, since it’s something that 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. Hopefully, I won’t make the same mistakes again.
It can be very difficult to critique your own photos. Even if you want to be critical, you’ll end up biased because of the circumstances surrounding a shot.
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. I know from experience — it’s impossible to give those photos an accurate review. Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re not. But if the experience is still fresh on your mind, 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 weeks to a few months. The longer you wait, though, the more accurate you’ll be.
Or, you could show your photos to another photographer. Post them online — not on apps like Instagram, but on forums where photographers take the time to look at other peoples’ work and offer suggestions. It can help to hear a third-party critique of your photo; you might see things that you didn’t notice at first. (Though, I will point out that forums often alternate between being too harsh and being too complimentary, so proceed with this in mind.)
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. That’s what matters most — 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, tripods are 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. They give you 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.
Tripods aren’t fun to use. They’re heavy and expensive. But they’re an important part of good 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 want a good carbon-fiber tripod. They’re the best and lightest on the market, 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. Even if you own a cheap plastic one from the dollar store, it’s a thousand times better than nothing. Get in the habit of using one, and you’ll know soon enough whether it’s worth buying a high-end model.
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 much easier.
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? I take a lot of photos, and unexpected events like this happen to me only a few times every year. It isn’t common at all. But, if you can make the most of crazy, 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 that you miss will haunt you. I speak from personal experience. Even knowing how to set my camera by heart, I miss about 25% of photos in fast-moving situations. I’m trying to get that 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 you’ll miss.
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.
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, you should see the quality of your images steadily improve. That said, there is still so much more to learn. If you’re just starting out in landscape photography, a lot of exciting experiences await you in the future.