There is something so satisfying about capturing a stunning landscape photography shot. Regardless of your skill level or how many years you have been shooting – when you know you have “nailed” a landscape shot, it just feels great.
Maybe it’s because of the planning or effort that often goes into it. Or maybe it’s because you are at the mercy of the elements.
Either way not only does it feel fantastic, but a great landscape shot will look beautiful anywhere.
Capturing great landscape shots isn’t easy though. So here is a checklist with five things for you to tick off so you can capture stunning landscape shots.
1. Is it an awesome location?
The first element of any great landscape photo is the location.
This doesn’t mean that you have to venture to the ends of the earth. Your own country or even region is bound to have great locations for landscape photography.
You just have to find them. This means you should start by researching the location that you are planning to shoot.
Things to considers when choosing a location:
Is it accessible?
It’s all good and well looking at a map and thinking you can shoot here, but can you actually get to and from the spot safely?
Will your view be obstructed in any way?
It’s so easy to look at a map and think this spot looks good, only to get there to find that your view is blocked by trees.
Is it somewhere that you can scout beforehand?
There’s no substitute for actually going there and checking it out for yourself. But obviously, if it involves an eight-hour hike, you may not want to risk it.
How will the elevation of the region affect the light?
Are those huge mountains going to affect where the light from the sun can get to?
Is it a unique view?
This is something that is very difficult to achieve these days but is still possible.
If you turn up somewhere and just go to the usual viewpoint you are going to capture the same photo as everyone else.
Of course, you might get lucky with the light or striking clouds, but your composition isn’t going to be too different. But if you can find an alternative spot, that will give you a photo that others might not have captured.
Do you have a Plan B?
Something that I have experienced many times myself. You get to a location and find that it isn’t as good as you thought.
It’s always worth having a few different potential spots if the first one doesn’t turn out to be any good.
2. Are you photographing in the best light?
By far the most common feedback I give to amateur or newbie photographers for their landscape shots is about the light.
Often, they have done everything right but have just taken the photo at the wrong time.
Any form of outdoor photography is reliant heavily on the light.
In landscape photography, light is even more vital. Even the most incredible location will look dull and uninteresting if the light you are shooting in is flat.
It can be incredibly frustrating when you find yourself in a situation where the light isn’t great. But it happens to every single landscape photographer at some point.
For landscape photography, early morning or late afternoon light works best.
The soft golden light will help enhance shadows and give your images more depth and structure. This is why if you head out to a location before sunrise, you’ll often see photographers rather than the general public.
If you find that the light isn’t great you can either pack up and go home or if there is a possibility the light may change, you can wait it out.
I've lost count of the number of times that I have decided to wait out the rain and wind to be rewarded with a stunning photo.
The other option is to photograph something else.
For example, if it’s raining you could head into a woodland or a forest (if there is one nearby) where the rain and flat light can actually help enhance the scene and make photographing it easier.
3. Have you taken the time to compose your image?
One of the things that I love most about landscape photography is the relaxed nature of it.
If you are photographing a busy city, you have to be constantly ready and might have to snap away in a split second. Things happen so quickly that you often just have to react.
In landscape photography, however, if you have done your homework and arrive at your location in good time, you will have plenty of time to compose and take your shot. But I still find it staggering when I see photographers turn up and dash about in mad rush taking photos.
Often, the first thing I do when I get to a location is just sit down and admire the view for a few minutes.
I look around and take in the scene and begin to compose the shot in my head. I think about whether it would work better as a vertical or horizontal image. Or if it needs a point of interest in the foreground.
Only once I have an idea in my head of what the final image will look like do I set up my camera to take the shot. But it doesn’t end there.
Very rarely do I find that the first couple of shots I take from a location are actually my best. So, I will continue to tweak and even move around until I feel I have captured the best shot possible.
4. Is it different from the usual?
As we discussed earlier, it’s really important that you try to choose your location carefully to maximize all the elements that go into making a great landscape photo. A big part of that is trying to capture something unique.
This can often be done in a few different ways.
For example, it could be a location that others haven’t discovered. Or maybe it's because you have a dramatic set of natural conditions like an amazing sunset or even some striking moody storm clouds. Or you can try to capture something unique from an already popular spot.
While this might seem difficult, it isn’t impossible. It requires either creative thinking or some luck.
You might get lucky and a person or an animal walks into your composition which gives you a unique shot. Or as is the case most of the time, you have to create it yourself.
This could be done by placing yourself in the shot or even changing your perspective.
A low camera angle will create a completely different image than one taken at regular eye level one so don’t be afraid to experiment.
5. Are you using the right gear?
I really don’t like talking about the “right” gear too much because ultimately you can take great photos just with a smartphone.
For landscape photography, clearly, you’ll need a camera with preferably a wide angle lens.
But there are also some accessories that are essential for landscape photography and using them will mean better photos.
Without a doubt, the most important accessory when it comes to landscape photography is a tripod. Simply put, if you want to capture the best photo possible, in the best possible light, then a tripod is essential.
Using a tripod means you can use a lower ISO, slower shutter speed and have a greater depth of field, all of which can help you capture better landscape photos.
Yes, they are cumbersome to carry but it’s a small price to pay for better photos.
Read 9 Tripod Mistakes That Could Be Ruining Your Images and Putting Your Camera at Risk to make sure you're using it right!
Graduated Neutral Density Filters
One of the biggest challenges in landscape photography is being able to balance the light across the whole scene in your image.
When you are photographing in the early morning or late afternoon, you will often find that your sky is too bright, and your foreground is too dark if you expose for either one.
This might mean that these areas are devoid of any pixel information – a term known as “clipping”. In extreme cases, you will not be able to recover these areas in post-processing.
So, there are a few solutions for this scenario.
A common one these days is bracketing or HDR where you take multiple images at different exposures and blend them all into one in a post-processing software.
This is perfectly acceptable and widely used. But most professional photographers prefer to capture images correctly at the time of exposure.
This is where graduated neutral density filters are invaluable. They help even out this imbalance to give the correct exposure across your image.
There are plenty of other accessories such as a cable release, polarizing filter and even neutral density filters that might be useful from time to time, but they are not essential.
Landscape photography is one of the most rewarding genres of photography.
The sense of satisfaction you achieve when you have captured a stunning shot after hours of hiking and waiting around in the cold and wet makes it all worthwhile.
The good news is that while landscape photography isn’t easy, it is something that I believe you can improve on quickly with just some simple tips and advice. So, follow the ones above and you should already see an improvement in your photos.