Of landscapes, as of people, one becomes more tolerant after one’s twentieth year…We learn to look at them, not in the flat but in depth, as things to be burrowed into. It is not merely a question of lines and colours but of smells, sounds and tastes as well…
C.S. Lewis: Images of His World
Landscapes are a favorite subject for many photographers. They are among the oldest subjects for a camera, going back to William Henry Jackson and other early photographers who traveled with the explorers on their trips west. Their photos of the Yosemite valley, and other places, along with the eloquent writings and speeches of John Muir, played a major role in the designation of many national parks.
The pictures most photographers take of the places they visit, however, usually don’t measure up to their expectations. So many factors figure into our impressions of a place: the sounds of the birds, the smells of the forest, the chill of the wind. All the things that make a wild place wild, except for the view itself, get left behind when we take a photograph home. The picture must stand on its own.
Most people think that if they could only travel to more exotic locations, or own more expensive equipment, their pictures would improve. If they only shot enough film, something would turn out. After all, we have all heard the pros brag about how much film they shoot. The truth is that if you master the basic techniques, you can make good photos under almost any conditions. Technical competence is the foundation that frees you to concentrate on your creativity.
Thirty-six satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new.
Sometimes the story you want to tell is the overall landscape and sometimes it is a small bit. Using a long lens you can pick and choose. Here, Brent wanted to show the Alaska tundra with the trees reflecting in the water, then he realized that he really liked the trees in the water with the sunset light on the mountains. Both tell a different story even though they are both of the same subject.
The Grand Landscape
Have you ever visited a place so incredible, so awe inspiring, that you pulled out your camera and tried to fit it all in? The mountains, the clouds, this rock, that bunch of flowers, the edge of the forest. When you get your picture back you wondered why you even took it. We need to learn how to decide what is most important to the point we are trying to make, and exclude everything that doesn’t fit. You’ve heard this before: simplify, simplify, simplify.
A favorite lens for big landscapes is the wide angle lens. It’s also probably the hardest to use because it sees so much. Put it on your camera and hold it to your eye. Everything in sight is there, including perhaps your own feet or the tripod legs, or both. How do you simplify with a lens that sees everything?
The trick is to put the lens close to something interesting and hide all the unnecessary things behind it. A wide angle lens has an enormous depth of field. A 20mm will show everything from 11 inches to infinity in sharp focus. It also seems to expand space. Objects close to the lens seem abnormally large, while things far away diminish in size to the point that they disappear.
The wide angle is excellent for showing how a detail relates to the big scene. Find an interesting rock, a bunch of flowers, a pattern in the snow, and physically get close. This will frequently put you on your hands and knees, but the results are worth it. Look through your viewfinder and make sure you are including the mountains or an interesting sky. Adjust your position left or right, up or down to get a balanced composition. With a wide angle, inches can seem like miles. Make sure your car is hidden behind the nearest tree, and you are almost ready to go.
Try different perspectives, like horizontal and vertical, to create different effects of the same subject. Are these photographs of the mountains at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the same or different? Does the feeling change? Different perspectives can capture different emotional qualities in an image.
The last thing to consider is the technical. For most scenics, a good rule of thumb is that everything should be in focus. Use wide angles at apertures from f8 to f22. The closer the subject is to the photographer, the more the need to stop down the aperture to maximize depth of field.
The normal lens is probably the most versatile of any lens in your bag. At 50mm, use it for big scenics when the wide angle shows too much or whenever its angle of view matches your vision. With care, we can exclude the distracting while still giving the feeling of space.
Use S curves to lead your viewer’s eye into the picture and toward your subject. Frame your subject with the branches of a tree. When used every time, these devices can become monotonous, but the idea is to use all the parts of the scene to enhance the visual appeal of your subject.
Sometimes the part of the scene that is most interesting to you is the detail in the distance. The way the snow clings to the cliffs and the glaciers resist the inevitable pull of gravity is just a part of the big picture. Grab your telephoto lens and get closer.
The angle of view of a telephoto lens is very narrow. These lenses, with focal lengths from about 100mm on up, allow you to come in close on your subject and exclude everything else. Instead of showing the whole mountain, we can use a 300mm or 500mm and force our viewer to look at just the peak. Take a valley filled with clouds, and extract the best section showing the magical movement of the fog through the trees.
Called optical extraction, it is a great way to make a large number of compositions while standing in one spot. By moving from lens to lens and looking in different directions, we can travel across the countryside in an afternoon without moving, each a unique perspective and vision of the landscape.
Look for Weather
Something to remember about nature photography is that oftentimes, bad weather is good weather. Our mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, snow-skiing friends pray for blue skies on the weekends. But for us, a hint of mist or a medium fog in the air is magic, creating a thin veil, an almost lacy effect. It can add a romantic feel to the landscape. Dark stormy clouds can be very dramatic, especially when the sun breaks through a hole in the sky creating great rays of crepulscular light. The play of stormy light upon the land can be fascinating to watch and photograph as it totally changes the mood of a scenic. Weather creates great opportunities for the landscape photographer.
Sunsets are a favorite subject, and you get two chances each day to catch the sunrise and sunset. They come in all colors, and every one is different. Because sunsets are so common, look for things to add to your view which make your pictures unique. Silhouette the branches of a tree against the red sky. Or even look the other direction and watch how the light plays across the land.
In a 1991 issue of Popular Photography, well known National Geographic Photographers commented:
My advice to scenic photographers is short and sweet:
It’s fine to go into a situation with preconceived ideas about
what you’re going to photograph, but don’t let your plans blind you
to other photo possibilities in the area. Never be afraid to reformulate
or drop your original intentions and photograph something completely
different. Keep your eyes and your mind open. Go with the flow.
To shoot scenics successfully, you must become totally familiar with your subject. Develop an understanding and point of view about your subject and imagine how that point of view would be most successfully communicated in a still image. Know what you want. Don’t wander around hoping that a spectacular image will jump out at you. Good scenics are usually the result of hard thinking and planning, not luck.