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Photographing Landscapes

There are many different types of nature photography. We examine the three most common types—landscapes, flowers, and wildlife. Landscapes first.

Put simply, a landscape is that part of the scenery seen from a single viewpoint. A landscape can include any and all aspects of nature, including fields, trees, and water. You can have mountain landscapes, desert landscapes, ocean landscapes, and forest landscapes. A landscape shot can include structures (farmhouses, barns, fences, and the like) but seldom includes people or animals—unless they're very small in the frame and used to show scale.

Using the Right Equipment

You can use any digital camera to shoot landscapes, although a digital SLR (D-SLR) with a 3:2 aspect ratio produces better results than the squarer 4:3 frame of a point-and-shoot camera; the wider frame produces a more cinematic effect. A D-SLR also lets you shoot in aperture priority mode, which is necessary to set the small apertures necessary to capture a large depth of field.

Whether you use a point-and-shoot or D-SLR, you want to add a polarizing filter to the lens, to help create richer colors in the sunlight. You may also want to consider a neutral density filter (to compensate for overbright scenes, especially when shooting water) or a graduated filter (to darken a bright sky).

As to the lens, the best lens for shooting wide landscapes is a slight wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens lets you include more in the frame and opens up the perspective. It also keeps the entire shot in balance without introducing false perspective.

Also useful is a tripod. That's because you'll be using a small aperture, which requires a slow shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds can result in blurry shots if the camera moves during the exposure. Hence the need for a tripod to keep things steady.

Working with Depth of Field and Focus

A large depth of field is part and parcel in landscape photography. You want the entire shot, back to front, in sharp focus. You can contrast this approach with that of portrait photography, where you want the background deliberately blurred with a shallow depth of field.

To achieve the large depth of field desirable in landscape photography, shoot in aperture priority mode with a small aperture—that's a large f/stop, something in the f/8 to f/11 range. The smaller the aperture (larger the f/stop), the greater the depth of field.

To compensate for the small aperture, you'll be using a slow shutter speed and perhaps a high ISO. In addition, you'll want your camera's auto focus set at infinity—or switch to manual focus and focus on the middle distance.

Composing the Shot

Any good landscape photo consists of three distinct parts:

  • Foreground. The part of the landscape closest to the camera. You give your photo a sense of depth by putting various points of interest into the foreground. These foreground elements can include small trees or shrubs, flowers, vines or roots, even man-made objects such as picnic benches, boats, or cars. These familiar objects help the viewer determine scale (size and distance).
  • Middle ground. The part of the landscape between the nearest objects and the sky or distant scenery. Look for some interesting element—typically part of the scenery, such as a tree or a lake or something similar—to position in front of the background. (And remember, the middle ground is what you manually focus on with your camera.)
  • Background. The farthest element in the frame. This may the sky itself, or a distant piece of scenery (mountains, hills, and so forth). All the other elements are framed against this background.

When all areas of a landscape photo are in focus, the viewer's eye wanders. To that end, you want to make sure that each area of the photo—foreground, middle ground, and background—contains some item of interest. Figure 23.3 provides a good example of this compositional strategy.

Figure 23.3

Figure 23.3 A landscape with interesting foreground, middle ground, and background.

You should shoot most of your landscapes in landscape or horizontal format. Use the rule of thirds to position the background (top third), middle ground (middle third), and foreground (bottom third) in the frame.

Working with the Horizon

The rule of thirds is also used to position the horizon line—at the bottom third if you want to emphasize the sky or background elements, or at the top third if you want to emphasize foreground elements. Avoid having the horizon bisect the frame, where it doesn't emphasize anything.

And here's something equally important. When the horizon is in the frame, it must be level. I've ruined too many landscape shots by having the camera slightly tilted; nobody wants to see an ocean that runs uphill. Take the time to level the horizon in your camera's viewfinder; use the viewfinder's grid display, if necessary, to keep it straight.

Working with Lines

Because you typically don't have a dominant subject in a landscape photograph, lines are important.

Lines, you say? That's right, lines—lines created by the natural architecture of the landscape, or by individual pieces of scenery. Lines can be formed by a row of trees, patches of flowers, the ridges of a hillside or mountain range, or the breaking of ocean waves. Lines can even be man-made, such as the road moving into the distance in Figure 23.4. Look for the natural geometric shapes of the landscape, and use them to compose your photos.

Figure 23.4

Figure 23.4 Use lines to lead the eye and lend interest to a landscape photo.

Horizontal and vertical lines can help frame the scene or provide visual boundaries. They can also, however, serve as "speed bumps" for the viewer, keeping the eye from flowing across the picture. Use these types of static lines judiciously.

Diagonal lines are better; they're more dynamic than horizontal or vertical lines, and help the eye arc across the frame. Look for diagonals that serve as leading lines towards a dominant feature of the landscape, such as a tree or riverbank.

Even better are converging lines—two or more lines coming from different parts of the scene to converge on a single point. Converging lines function as powerful leading lines; make sure they converge to something of particular interest.

Curved lines are also interesting; they add aesthetic appeal to almost any nature shot. S-curves are particularly appealing, appearing in winding rivers and streams, twisting roads, swirling clouds, warped tree trunks and branches, and the like.

Working with Shapes and Frames

Lines aren't the only geometric elements that appear almost by design in nature. Elements of the landscape can create all manner of geometric shapes; you should be on the lookout for these shapes and use them to provide interest to your nature photos.

You can also use natural elements to frame your landscape shot. Look for overhanging branches to provide an upper frame, or a row of plants to provide a lower frame. These framing elements then draw attention to objects in the middle ground of the image, as demonstrated in Figure 23.5.

Figure 23.5

Figure 23.5 Let nature frame your shot for you.

Provide a Focal Point

All this discussion of leading lines and frames reinforces the point that all photographs—even landscapes—need some sort of focal point. Without a center of attention (not literally centered in the frame, of course), the viewer's eyes wander through and out of the image, without stopping.

What is the focal point of a landscape photo? It can be any dominant element—a tree, flower, boulder, rock formation, building or other structure, fence, silhouette against the sky, you name it. It can be defined by size (largest element), shape (most interesting element), or color (brightest element). Whatever the focal point, all the lines and elements of the photograph should draw the eye to it, as illustrated in Figure 23.6.

Figure 23.6

Figure 23.6 Draw attention to the focal point of the photograph.

As with other types of photography, you should position this main element using the rule of thirds. Try to place it at one of the four points where the rule of thirds lines intersect, or at least along one of the horizontal or vertical lines. Do not place the focal point dead center in the image.

Emphasizing the Sky

When you're shooting outdoors, the sky becomes an important element of your photographs. Unless you're shooting in a heavily wooded forest, most landscape shots will have a prominent sky, typically filling the top third of the frame.

As such, you want the sky to be as interesting as possible. A washed out midday sky is to be avoided; the early morning or late afternoon sky (enhanced with a polarizing filter) presents a much deeper color for your photograph's background. Equally if not more interesting are clouds, as you can see in Figure 23.7; in fact, if the cloud formations are dramatic enough, you might want to make the sky the focus of your shot, by lowering the horizon to the bottom third of the frame.

Figure 23.7

Figure 23.7 A dramatic sky can make for an interesting photo.

Dealing with the Elements

Outdoors photography entails dealing with the elements—both personally (don't get too wet on a rainy day!) and in your photographs.

It goes without saying that interesting weather can make for interesting shots. For example, low hanging clouds and fog create a soft, diffused effect, as demonstrated in Figure 23.8.

Figure 23.8

Figure 23.8 A foggy landscape.

Some weather is less interesting. For example, when you shoot on a cloudy day (which creates a nice diffuse lighting effect for your foreground subjects), try to keep the sky out of your shot. Gray skies aren't appealing, even if the resulting diffused light is.

Shooting in the wintertime presents interesting challenges. Avoid underexposure caused by the bright white stuff. Bring up the exposure so that the foreground or other subjects aren't in shadow; Figure 23.9 shows how it should look.

Figure 23.9

Figure 23.9 Step up the exposure when shooting in the snow.

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