Photographing landscapes is easy. After all, landscapes are everywhere. Choosing a good composition is often much more difficult. It can be helpful to take small steps, slowly building up the most attractive composition. Let me show you how I often work for my landscapes.
There are a lot of composition rules and helpful insights for making an attractive photo. But learning this from examples, books, or YouTube videos doesn’t mean it will be easy in real life. The location you’re at will look much different compared to what you’ve seen.
For the best landscapes photos, you need to enjoy the place you’re at and let the landscape grow on you. Don’t start shooting the minute you’ve arrived. Keep the camera in the bag, or place it on a tripod and leave it alone for a moment. Just look at the surroundings and see every detail, no matter how small.
After seeing every detail in the landscape, the next step can be a sort of quest. Discover all the possible viewing angles. This can be done by sight, or you can take your camera and walk around, looking through the viewfinder. Try different focal lengths, vary the height and distance, and see if one or more of those details you’ve discovered fit in the composition.
Also, look at the relative position of the foreground elements compared to the background. How do these relate to each other and play with the possibilities your available focal lengths offer? I’ve written an article about the four methods of using the focal length of your lens. You might find it interesting to look at.
The before-after example below is an example of how a combination of focal length, depth of field, and distance to the subject can give a significant change in appearance.
You Can’t Always Go Back
Visiting a location multiple times is a good way of learning the possibilities it offers. This way, you can learn from previous mistakes just by looking at the results on your computer. It may also be a way to get ideas for another composition. If you come up with another composition idea, just go back and try it out.
Unfortunately, not every landscape can be visited time after time. If you go on a holiday to a faraway location, it might be the only occasion you have. In that case, take your time and try things out. It not only allows you to enjoy the place even more, but it will also improve the photos you take.
Take a Lot of Test Shots
It might be helpful to take test shots of every angle you’ve looked at. I often do this for examples for the photography lessons I teach. But I’ve discovered also how it can give insight into how I look at the landscape myself. In a way, it is a step-by-step process that will lead to the best possible way to register the landscape. Sometimes, the steps will improve the composition and leading lines or even bring a completely different viewing angle I’ve never thought of in the first place. Trying things out can also lead to less interesting compositions. Then, you know you've got it right the first time.
I have gathered a couple of examples of my step-by-step approach that may give some insight into finding a good composition or finding guiding lines in a landscape. These examples are made while scouting. The funny thing is when a daylight situation didn’t look too attractive at first, a good composition transformed the ordinary situation into a great-looking photo.
If You Don’t Have the Time
There are occasions when there is no time to extensively explore the possibilities of the landscape you’re in. The light can change very fast during sunrise or sunset. Or the light is changing constantly due to moving clouds. In those cases, you need to be fast and act almost in an instant. It requires a good understanding of camera settings and exposure settings, but you also have to find the best possible position fast.
Just remember practice makes perfect. This is why I also find the step-by-step process instructive for myself. The more I try this, the more it becomes second nature. The idea of practicing this method is making it automatic, so you can eventually find the most attractive possible composition just by looking at the landscape that surrounds you.
This is not the only method for finding a good composition, of course. If you’re a landscape photographer, how do you work? Do you use a similar method, or do you have another way of capturing the best possible photo at that location? Please share it in the comments below.