9 Tips to take your landscape photography to the next level

In Landscape/Nature by Rusty Parkhurst21 Comments

Landscape photography has always been my favorite shooting genre. There's something intriguing about being outside, soaking up the sights and sounds all around, and basking in the wonderment of our natural world. The ability to capture moments in time makes it all more interesting. Capturing amazing landscape images, whether they are in some epic location or right in your back yard, can be a challenging prospect.

We all know the basic elements that make a ‘good' photograph. Things such as subject, composition, quality of light, focus, and exposure. There are rules to help guide us in making images that are more than just snapshots. However, there comes a time to look beyond the rules to see what else there is to creating amazing images. This article will explore some of those other things to consider. Things that will help you elevate your landscape photography to the next level.

Have camera, must travel

I believe it is National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson who said, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” There is some truth to that, but there is still work to be done. For the first six to eight months after getting my first ‘real' camera, all of my shooting was in my yard or at least close to home. I was super excited to take my camera on a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks the following summer. Those interesting landscapes awaited a simple click of the shutter button, and would mean the creation of image masterpieces to fill my portfolio. Right? Well, sort of…

Looking back at some of the images from that trip, there is some decent stuff there. Certainly better than anything I had created before then, and that's kind of the point. Going to cool and interesting places can be motivational and inspiring. You will want to take the camera and you will want to shoot as much as possible. Before even returning home, you'll be looking forward to the next opportunity to travel someplace epic.

So the tip here is this: Go! Travel to a place where you've never been, or at least never taken your camera. Allow yourself to be swept up into the amazing landscape. Enjoy the surreal experience and create amazing images.

Take it slow

You know the saying, “Fools rush in…”? That can be applied in some ways to landscape photography. When arriving at a shooting location, the temptation is to grab the camera and start firing away. This may be referred to as the ‘machine gun' approach or ‘spraying and praying.' Hundreds (thousands?) of images are taken in hopes that something will ‘turn out.' Yes, it does happen, and yes, I'm guilty of doing this on more than one occasion.

Try slowing down instead. Landscape photography is as much about the experience as it is the image. When you arrive at a location, take some time to just survey the area. Walk around and search for interesting subjects, then discover ways to incorporate those subjects into a compelling composition. Do this before you even take the camera out of the bag. Become much more deliberate in your shooting. Your ‘keeper' rate will go way up and you will have a much more enjoyable experience.

Pre-visualize your shots


“You don't take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams


Have a vision of the image you wish to create before even arriving on location. Looking at the work of others is one way to help you do this. Search on popular photo sharing websites for the area you will be shooting to see what other photographers have created. This doesn't mean that you will copy their work, but rather use it as inspiration for your own creative vision. Look for ways to add your own touch – your own style – to create something unique.

This is one of the shots I had in mind before a trip to Maui last year.

Have a plan

Ok, so you know where you are going to shoot. Now is the time to come up with a plan that will give you the greatest chance of capturing a successful image. Is the location better at sunrise or sunset? What will the weather be like? Ask and answer as many questions as possible to develop a good plan before you go. There are many really good smartphone apps that can help. PhotoPills is one of my favorites, and is useful for landscape photography during the day and night. Find out where and when the sun or moon will rise or set; determine the location and peak viewing of the Milky Way for night shooting; and look for the best vantage points based on the terrain. Having a plan is important, and a good plan will help you to create better landscape images.

A lot of planning – and loss of sleep – went into making this image.

Think outside the box

At most well-known landscape photography locations, there is usually ‘the shot' that everyone wants to capture. Shots like sunrise at Mesa Arch, sunset at Delicate Arch, or the obligatory scene of Yosemite Valley. There is nothing wrong with capturing these images for yourself, but don't stop there. After the ‘safe' shots have been bagged, look for more unique perspectives of familiar places. Move out of the tripod holes left by thousands of photographers before you, and discover what else is there.


“One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” – Minor White


Searching for new ways to create images of familiar places is a fun and challenging experience. Try shooting from different angles and perspectives. Shoot from very low or up high. Discover different compositions to accentuate the main subject in new ways. This will take some practice, but is a great exercise for your creative muscles.

Using different techniques, such as filters to show motion or create mood, is a good way to get more creative images.

Many happy returns

No matter how successful you are at capturing images in a location, there is always room for improvement. Try to return to a location several times. The sky will be different and the light will change each time you go. Shoot at different times of day or even different seasons. Become intimately familiar with a scene and how subtle changes in light can produce dramatically different results. Each time you visit a location, the goal should be to create an image that is better than the last.

Shoot where you are

This kind of flies in the face of the very first tip in this article that says to travel to new places. However, if you're like me and most other photographers, you spend most of your time in your home area. This is where you can really hone your skills. We all fall into the trap of thinking there is nothing interesting to shoot where we live. Don't let the familiarity lead to apathy. Get the camera out and take a hike in the woods, through a local park, around your block, or along the street in the city where you live. Look for things you may have never noticed before. Search for interesting details or intimate landscapes that tell the story of where you live. Learning all of your gear inside and out here will help you to create better images when you travel someplace new.

I always liked this scene, just down the road from where I live, and always thought if only a cloud were to line up to balance out the tree. One day it happened, I pulled over, and captured this image.

Post-process like a pro

It doesn't matter what editing software you use, whether it be Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, Luminar, or something else. Learn how to utilize that software to maximize the potential of your images. Clicking the shutter button is really only half of the creative process. The rest is done on the computer (or darkroom if that is your thing). There are tons of free and paid tutorials out there for any photo editing software. Learn it, live it, love it. Your images will be greatly improved when you are able to push and pull every pixel to their fullest potential.

 

Don't be afraid to fail

Know that you will fail. We all do, time and time again. Take it for what it's worth and learn from it. Many things are out of your control in landscape photography. The clouds on the horizon that you think will make for an amazing sunset may clear out just before the sun goes down and leave a boring sky. Things like that happen. We also make mistakes, such as forgetting to change the ISO from 3200 where you had it during last night's shoot. Yes, I've done that. I've also somehow shot an entire scene in JPEG without knowing it, and I'm not even sure why it would have been changed from RAW format. Photography is a never-ending process of learning. Hopefully we become better photographers because of it.


About the Author

Rusty Parkhurst

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Rusty has been passionate about learning photography and creating great images since picking up his first 'real' camera 5 years ago. He works in the environmental consulting industry by day, spends evenings and weekends trying to keep up with 3 growing boys, and squeezes in as much photography time as possible. He loves talking photography and welcomes any questions you may have. More of his work can be found on his website.

Comments

  1. I loved reading this article
    It has helped me know more about landscape photography
    Thank you

  2. Nice article Rusty. I like your use of the appropriate quotes too. I’ve shot the Coquille Lighthouse and not come up with anything like you show here, a nice interpretation of a much-photographed scene and a perfect illustration of a concept you communicate in the article.

    1. Author

      Thanks for reading, Rick! It’s a great thing about photography that we can all go to the same location and come away with our own interpretation.

  3. Thanks Rusty. This article came a month before a trip to Alaska. I’m so excited to go and shoot all the natural beauty it has to offer. I’ll be sure to put your suggestions to work. Hopefully I’ll be able to fill my 64 gb card with Alaskan beauty. Thanks, Michael

    1. Author

      Wow, a trip to Alaska sounds incredible! Have a great time, Michael, and I hope some of my tips are helpful for you.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. “We all fall into the trap of thinking there is nothing interesting to shoot where we live.”

    Rusty, you must have been looking over my shoulder. A while back, some friends of mine said pretty much the same thing as that – and being mule headed, I took it as a challenge – I proceeded to your heading – “Shoot where you are” – and I have to say, it has made me a much better photographer.

    It ended up at times being a lot like Monet’s series of paintings of haystacks – the subject might have been the same as other photos, but something was different – the light, the sky, the shadows, whatever. I always thought I had a good “eye”, but this experience has proven to be a revelation, and improved my “eye” enormously.

    The rest of your article is equally important. Thanks for taking the time to put together a great piece of advice for ALL photographers – young or old, beginners or professionals

    1. Author

      That’s great, Pete, and thank you for reading! I think that is one of the most important tips. Most of us spend the majority of our time at or near “home base”, so that’s where we should be doing most of our shooting. Even if it is a challenge to find things new and fresh, it is up to us as photographers and artists to make it work.

      I would love to spend a whole lot more time travelling the world and visiting new places, but my reality is in Northwest Missouri. So that’s where I must hone my skills to be better prepared when I do have the opportunity to go other places. I believe that has helped me to improve and ‘see’ my surroundings differently.

      Keep on shooting, no matter where you are!

  5. Very nice Rusty! That last tip on not being afraid to fail really resonates. Years ago, it would have brought me down but now, it drives me to keep going and to keep improving.

    1. Author

      That’s awesome, Nathan! No one likes to fail, but it’s just a reality. Once we embrace it, and learn from it, we become better.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Great article, Rusty! The “Shoot where you are” section really hits home. As an amateur landscape photographer with a busy career, I’m limited to shooting close to home. There are plenty of parks, rivers, and historic sites in this area, but I have photographed them so often that “familiarity lead to apathy” has set in. Your advice is good, and I’ll use it to take a fresh look at these locations this season.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Marc! It is certainly a challenge to keep shooting and shooting in places where you’ve been many times before. It’s not easy to get motivated to go out time and again to those ‘familiar’ places. Doing so, however, will make you better. Also, more often than not, you’ll be glad you did.

  7. Great article, Rusty. I’ve made every mistake you mentioned and more. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Author

      Same here, Gary. I continue making mistakes, but also continue to learn from them. That’s what it’s all about.

      Thanks for reading!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Rick, and yes, those are probably the 2 tips I need to work on the most.

      Neither is always easy to do, but both will certainly reward you with good results and improvement. I’ll keep working on it!

      Cheers!

  8. After couple of years landscape photography only just learning to slow down. Going out in the golden hour helps too

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