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If you are interested in landscape photography I'm sure you have read lots of “how to improve…” type articles, which are all useful in their own way. But often to get things right you need to analyse what you are doing wrong. With this in mind here are 8 common mistakes that can spoil a landscape. This list is by no means scientific, it is simply anecdotal evidence that I have observed over the years.
It is important to remember that how the brain interprets a scene when you are actually there is very different from how the brain interprets a photograph. When you are actually there all your senses are feeding your brain information to keep the interest level up. Your brain won't care that there is nothing in the foreground because it chooses to focus on the beautiful mountains in the distance as well as taking in the smells and sounds to create a moment full of emotions.
Chances are that you also only look at those mountains for a few seconds before your brain puts the image into its memory banks and turns its attention to something else around you that may be equally as beautiful. You remember the whole scene as the sum of the most beautiful parts.
This is in stark contrast to looking at a photograph which can only capture one small part of the whole experience. As a result photographers must work extra hard to capture the elements that their brain wanted to capture and, more importantly, filter out those elements which the brain automatically filters but the camera does not.
Remember, the human brain is attracted to beautiful things and will filter out anything it finds unattractive to concentrate on the parts it likes. Your camera will not do this and one of your main jobs as a photographer is to override this filter when you look through your viewfinder and compose your shot accordingly.
Forgetting to Include Foreground Interest
This is probably the most common mistake that beginners make when shooting landscapes. It's easy to get caught up in the beauty of a distant mountain range and think that it will make for a beautiful image. But for the reasons stated above it generally will not on its own. The viewers eye will generally look at the foreground first and if there is nothing there to spark an interest then you'll probably lose them at that point. Remember, in a photograph there are no sounds, no smells, no gentle breeze caressing your cheeks – it's all about what the viewer sees with their eyes and for that reason you need to make the whole image scream “look at me.”
Rushing a Shoot
If you want to achieve great landscape photographs be prepared to spend plenty of time at your chosen location and keep shooting and moving around throughout. If your wife / kids are going to get bored waiting for you, leave them at home. Unless you get lucky you need to give yourself at least an hour at a location to get a great shot. You need to take your time to survey the area and pick a spot, set up your equipment and wait for the light / clouds / whatever to be just right. These things just cannot be rushed. You should also allow yourself plenty of time to move around and shoot from different angles.
Forgetting About Shooting Portrait
When shooting landscapes the overwhelming urge is to shoot in landscape mode, i.e.. have your camera horizontal. The fact is that most of the time this will be the best option, after all it's landscape mode and you are shooting a landscape, the clue is kind of in the name. However, it won't always be the case. Sometimes a scene is crying out to be taken portrait style and sometimes it's almost impossible to tell which is going to turn out best, especially if you are a beginner. So, what do you do, shoot landscape or portrait? That's easy, do both. Set up, shoot landscape and then rotate your camera through 90 degrees and do some portrait shots. Worry about which is best when you are sitting at your computer.
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Getting a Crooked Horizon
This is probably the easiest on in this list to fix. There really is no excuse for the horizon being anything other than straight but don't trust your judgement, use a tripod and a spirit level to ensure that your camera is absolutely straight. If you don't already have one, you can get a level which fits into your hotshoe on your camera for the price of a beer. If your camera has a built in level it may be best not to trust it, they are not always the most accurate things.
Whatever you do, don't try to judge it by eye, the contours of the land can be far more disorientating than you realise and although you can straighten in post you will inevitably lose some of the image.
Only Shooting Wide
Many people think that landscape photography is all about throwing on your widest lens and capturing as much of a scene as you can. It isn't.
Landscape photography is about selecting the right elements and incorporating them into the shot to produce the best work you possibly can. Don't get me wrong, wide is good, but it's not the be all and end all. Sometimes you can capture too much of a scene and this can detract from what you are trying to achieve.
If you can move yourself to a better vantage point then fine but this all takes time and with conditions inevitably changing fast it's often too much of a risk. Don't be afraid to zoom in, wither a little or a lot, there are plenty of fantastic landscapes around taken at 200mm or more. One interesting side effect of shooting zoomed in is that it flattens out the depth bringing all the elements closer together, this can create a very pleasing effect even with landscapes.
Getting Incorrect Exposure
Landscape photography often requires photographing both the land and the sky and these 2 elements are normally very different in terms of how they need to be exposed. The problem is that if you expose for the sky, the land can be too dark and if you expose for the land, the sky can be blown out and detail will be lost.
Your job as a landscape photographer is to make sure all the elements in the shot are exposed correctly so that maximum detail is revealed to the viewer. There are 2 main ways to control your exposure in this situation, HDR and use of graduated filters.
HDR involves taking multiple exposures, generally at least 3, and merging them together using software. One exposure will be for the bright parts of the image (sky), one for the dark areas (land) and then one somewhere in between. You can find more on HDR here.
Graduated Neutral Density filters are a means of controlling the exposure at the time of shooting to try and get an even exposure in camera rather than in post. Using a graduated filter is a bit like putting a pair of sunglasses on your camera but only on the bright part (sky). Graduated filters work best when there is a well defined horizontal separation between the land and the sky. You can find more on this technique here.
Including Too Much Clutter
In day to day life the human brain is great at removing the unwanted from a scene and focusing on what it wants you to notice, which tends to be the more attractive elements. When you are stood on the beach surveying a beautiful seascape with the sun setting in the distance you don't even notice that pile of rubbish underneath the jetty. But translate that scene into a photograph and it will stick out like a sore thumb. You have to condition yourself to spot these issues otherwise they will ruin your end product.
Always take the time to either compose the scene so that the unwanted elements are not there, or if possible remove these elements before you shoot, or if all else fails, remove them in post.
Failure to Post Process
Some people have a hang up about manipulating their photographs after they have been taken. They see it as somehow cheating. I personally say that anything goes depending on what you are trying to achieve.
If you are a journalist then it stands to reason that you shouldn't manipulate your image beyond getting the brightness and contrast correct, but as a landscape photographer I think there are no rules. What are you trying to do? Are you trying to portray the scene exactly as it was when you were there? Or are you trying to create a piece of art that people will want to look at again and again?
I don't think many people would disagree that it is ok to change the brightness and contrast to make the shot a little more vivid, but what about removing unwanted elements? Is that acceptable? I say it is. After all, if you think about the above point (too much clutter), that is what you are doing. What's the difference between doing it when you are there and doing it in post? At the end of the day if you zoom in you are removing lots of elements.
But what about adding elements? This one really is controversial. If your shot is great but your sky is boring is it acceptable to add in a better sky? Well, I say yes. It's not something I do very often but it's certainly not something I am adverse to.
To enable yourself to post process properly you need to shoot RAW rather than JPEG. RAW images allow far greater control in post processing and often make the difference between a good and a great photograph.
Remember, these are not hard and fast rules but simply ideas that you can choose to ignore if you wish but hopefully one or two of them may help you see the wood for the trees.