Landscapes are beautiful, so why are you treating them so badly? Yes, you, the one over there with the tripod. Never mind your excuses, come here and read this insightful list of common landscape problems, because you’ll find out how to stop them. They could save your life. Or your portfolio at least.
Seriously then, these are six of the sins most often inflicted on harmless beauty spots. It’s not a complete list, of course, and there are many more pitfalls to landscape photography than listed here, but stick to these tips and you’ll be well on the way to more solid scenics.
Of course, many of the mistakes mentioned can also to be found in great landscape images, but here’s the thing: in those pictures, they’ve been done on purpose; those photographers most likely had to learn the rules in order to break them so successfully.
Well then, let’s crack on…
Mistake #1: Not being there.
The mistake: It might seem obvious, but this is the most important mistake people make: not being there. It works like this: you’ve planned your dawn shoot, selected your camera and lenses, charged your batteries, and packed your bag for the morning; but when it comes to it, you just stay in bed. We’ve all done it, because sleep is delicious. But now, even someone stumbling home from an all nighter with their camera phone, and accidentally taking pictures stands a better chance than you, because they’re there. They’re in the moment.
How to fix it: It can take commitment, and several alarm clocks, but the most important thing is to learn to love the outdoors. That’s probably the reason you’re interested in landscapes anyway. You just need to remember the good things about being out there in the elements, and you’ll bolt out of bed every time.
Mistake #2: Shooting in poor light.
The mistake: Nothing kills a good scene like poor light, and pound for pound there’s a lot of poor light around. As you’ve probably read 100 times before, the best times to shoot are around dawn and sunset, but there’s usually a lot of time between those hours, either in darkness or the yawning blandness of the midday. In those bland hours, light is less warm and directional, contrast is lower and views lack drama. Some steps can be taken in editing, but often lead to the scene being overworked and looking horrible.
How to fix it: Realise that ultimately pictures taken in poor light will disappoint you. Stop shooting pictures that disappoint you and plan your shoots better. Embrace the good light by being around when it happens. Dawn takes place often at unsociable hours, so you’re unlikely to be putting anyone out. Dusk is trickier, as it’s more likely to cut into family or work time, so concentrate on the start of the day if you can. If you must shoot outside the best hours, look for weather conditions that give areas of light and shade, like stormy conditions.
Mistake #3: Composition on the tilt.
The mistake: Landscape images with tilted horizons always look wrong. You might only be out by a few degrees but it’s enough to unsettle the view and spoil the calming feel of the image. Minor levelling of the scene can be done in processing while you’re cropping, but if you need to angle the composition too much you’ll be losing a lot of pixels in straightening it.
How to fix it: An easy one to fix, this. All you need to do is use kit that helps you tell if the camera is set up on the level. Most decent tripod heads come with a bubble level, and you can buy hot-shoe mounted ones cheaply if your tripod doesn’t. Many cameras also have virtual horizons now; a press of a button will show whether or not you’re on the level.
Mistake #4: Bland skies
The mistake: Another landscape killer is shooting with little or no sky detail, or creating pics where the sky is too light. In the first instance, the viewer’s eye wanders into the blank areas and gets bored. The second is a common landscape problem when the scenery, in exposure terms, is dimmer than the sky. In that case, the camera has to underexpose one or overexpose the other, so you get very bright, featureless skies.
How to fix it: The first fix is composition: if the sky is poor, minimise it in the frame, so there’s only a little of it. The other is more reliant on filtering or processing. To equalise the brightness of the sky and the landscape, you can fit a graduated Neutral Density filter, which will darken the sky. If you’re relying on post-processing, you can shoot in Raw and hope that the sky can be darkened sufficiently in editing using a graduated filter tool.
Mistake #5: No foreground.
The mistake: There are some great landscape pictures that have little or no foreground interest. And there are a lot more dreadful ones which lack foreground, too. A dearth of foreground interest is the quickest way to ruin a good scene. Without foreground your shot will look like a hasty snap; with good foreground, it’ll look like a more considered landscape.
How to fix it: Once you’ve found a good view, look around for some decent foreground interest. If there isn’t any it’s likely you don’t have a shot. But there probably will be some if you look hard enough. It could be anything from a few rocks, to a stream, some street furniture, even blades of grass. If there’s not much, try to shoot closer to the ground which will enlarge the details.
Mistake #6: Too much foreground
The mistake: Yes, this is possible. In the search for foreground, many photographers fall into the trap of making the foreground too dominant. When reviewing the shot, ask yourself this: is there a pleasing balance and flow to the picture, or does it look like a massive pile of rocks with nothing promising beyond? The purpose of foreground interest is to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame, so if it stays in the same spot at the bottom of the image, something’s gone wrong.
How to fix it: In the first instance, try to make sure the foreground only covers the bottom third of the image; any more, and it’s likely to be cutting the scene in two, and removing any decent flow from the foreground to background. Something else you can do is to avoid the widest focal lengths. Wide-angle lenses are great for altering the perspective and exaggerating foreground, but used without care they’ll do the job too well, and make foregrounds too dominant.