Best 3 Steps to Gorgeous Landscape Images

Seek the Right Light

I would happily argue that great light is the single most important element in a successful landscape image. In fact, I dedicated a significant number of ePages in Living Landscapes to doing just that. Great light is truly transformative.

Fortunately, seeking great light doesn’t entail shooting only Ferrari-red sunsets. In fact, I will pull out the camera in almost any light if it complements a scene. The skill is learning to judge what constitutes the best possible lighting conditions for a given location – this is where you have to practice the art of observation and pre-visualization to judge how the sun will play out during the course of the day. I use digital tools to assist in this process, namely Focalware, which is a nifty little app that shows the arc of the sun and moon throughout the day with freakish accuracy.

Before afterGreat light is transformative. In Living Landscapes I detail the many steps and decisions that led from the scouting shot on the left to several portfolio-grade images of this scene.

Create a Composition

Composition is where it all comes together artistically. You may have lined up an amazing subject and be blessed with a veritable pyrotechnics show in the sky but if you combine these in a dreary, sloppy and uninspiring composition all is wasted.

I personally divide landscape compositions into two broad (and absolutely unscientifically defined) categories;

  • Dynamic landscape compositions
  • Static landscape compositions

Dynamic compositions are the show ponies of the landscape photography world. They employ a suite of visual ploys to imbue an image with an almost 3-D feel and/or impart a sense of dynamic energy. Dynamic compositions used to be difficult to create in ye olde film days but the learning curve is vastly accelerated by the digital workflow and easy access to educational information such as this dPS blog post written by yours truly.

NZ CO cathedral cove 6Show pony. Dynamic compositions employ techniques such as leading lines, motion blur and vivid colors to draw the viewer’s attention into the frame.

Static compositions subscribe to a more traditional photographic aesthetic and, I feel, are more faithful to the two-dimensional constraints of the art form – most of Ansel Adams’ images would be considered static as opposed to dynamic compositions. I have a personal preference for beautifully executed static compositions – probably because I am fairly ancient, in internet years at least…

Static compositions rely upon a more subtle repertoire of visual techniques to achieve a sense of drama. Successful static compositions use a combination of layers, contrast, texture, form, localized lighting and color to engage the viewer.

NZ WR Sunset SheepNo place for show ponies. Static compositions such as this rely upon layers of visual interest, form and spot lighting to succeed.

Mixing it Up

It is important to note that there is no particular order for executing these three steps. I will often stumble across great light (always it seems when driving with a car full of tired & hungry kids ) and then have to find a subject and a composition to capitalize upon the situation. This is, of course, where strong craft and technical skills kick in – readers of Living Landscapes will know that I promote a policy of keeping it simple with regards to camera settings and technical considerations, this allows me to work fast and seek out compositions – even while being bombarded with requests for snacks from the back seat!

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