Landscape photography can be a frustrating beast when you start getting serious about it. The fact that you have a lot of control over your scene compared to other forms of photography (sports for example) means the benchmark for quality is set extremely high.
But as you dig further into the rabbit hole of landscapes, you will find that several recurring elements can align to increase your chances of getting a good shot. This article is about those elements and what you can look for in a potential landscape scene.
Now, as with any of these types of articles, there are always exceptions and often quite a lot. This isn't meant to be taken as the gospel of how to take a landscape photograph, but rather as a type of checklist that you can refer to when deciding if a particular scene might result in a decent photograph. Basically, a few things to look for if you're in the mood to take a photograph.
A Bit of Cloud Never Hurts in The Golden Hour
If you're shooting your landscapes in the golden hour or the blue hour (and you should strongly consider it), then one thing you will come to learn is that the light cast at these times can look absolutely spectacular on clouds.
Now personally, I prefer looking for light to medium cloud cover as the white clouds can really take on some spectacular colours. Heavier cloud cover with a darker tones can throw up some more challenging issues with exposure and can also limit your potential edits. But even with heavier cloud cover, you can still get some quite amazing shots, but do consider getting out your camera!
Notice the colour of the clouds in the below photograph.
Is The Light Hitting Any Midrange Elements?
Sometimes you are lucky enough to find yourself at the perfect vantage point whereby the light from a sunrise or sunset leaves a lot of your scene in shade but casts a beautiful hue on a standout middle distance element of your landscape.
Now, this type of effect can sometimes be emulated in post production with a vignette or a graduated filter (or two), but as with most post production, it is far more natural and appealing to the eye if you capture it “in camera.”
The image below is an example of soft light hitting a mid range elements and, as you can see, it really draws your eye to that path. In this case, there was obviously a bit of post-production vignetting added to enhance that effect, but it is still quite effective.
Here is another example of light hitting a mid range element – in this example some cliffs. This is a great time to capture elements like this and make them stand out agains their surroundings.
And another example of beautiful light hitting mid range elements of a landscape photo. As you can see, cliffs, mountains and hills really lend themselves to this effect.
Are There Any Elements That Contrast With Their Surrounds?
When you find elements in your image that contrast with their surrounding elements in terms of colour, tone or even subject matter (industrial versus natural for example) then it can make for a very effective landscape photograph.
Here is an extreme approach to this which makes for a very effective photograph:
Here is a more conventional approach. Note how human-made contrasts with the natural surrounds. How the warm, yellow light contrasts with the cool blue scene.
If You Find Foreground Interest, Figure Out How to Use It
Now, sometimes you'll find yourself walking along, and out of nowhere you will see a really interesting piece of a potential composition. Maybe it's a rock, a pile of sticks or an interesting pattern in the dirt. It might even be some human made element.
A landscape photographer will usually recognise it as a potential foreground for a better image and so will you as you become more obsessed with landscape photography.
So stop! Look around. Move around that object and see what you can put it in front of by moving your feet. Quite often a foreground element can be such a visually powerful element of a photograph that it can carry the whole scene. Now, obviously it is much better if you can also find an interesting mid-ground and background, but you won't know until you stop and think about your surrounds.
The image below is dominated by the foreground interest of the small boats, but is complemented perfectly by the huge mountains behind them (coincidentally a good example of contrasting elements too).
When you're on a beach, a piece of driftwood or seaweed is a classic piece of foreground interest.
Now, these tips weren't meant to be a comprehensive or even necessary set of elements to look out for to help make your landscape photographs a bit more interesting, but you might find them useful as simple things to keep in the back of your mind. As you go further down the rabbit hole of landscape photography, you will find yourself filing things like this away in your head and adding looking for them to your habits. In fact, you will probably develop a lot of them. It's part of the fun and the frustration of becoming a landscape photographer.
Now you may have noticed that most of these ideas center around getting your composition right. That is no mistake. Landscape composition is a very challenging thing to get right. If you want to get your composition skills up, then consider taking a look at Kent Dufault's excellent guide on the topic. It goes well beyond what have discussed here and will give you several strategies for improving your landscape compositions as well as other types of photography. Check it out here.