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Photo masterclass part 1: Landscapes
Welcome to the first of our exclusive series on the art of wildlife and nature photography. In each installment, we will focus on a different type of photography and demonstrate how you can improve your pictures. Part one shows you how to take better photographs of landscapes.
What could be easier than walking or driving up to a beautiful mountain, forest, lake or rocky shore and taking a prize-winning picture? There’s no need for specialist equipment – the subject is visually impressive in its own right and doesn’t run away if you get too close.
There’s plenty of time to choose the right lens, set up the tripod (you weren’t thinking of taking the picture without a tripod, were you?) compose the shot – and snap.
But if photographing landscapes is so easy, why is it that few images really do their subjects justice? Many photos show scenes that are undeniably breathtaking or inspiring, but the images themselves are not.
The reason is simple – pleasing composition doesn’t happen automatically or by chance. Regardless of how impressive a landscape may be, simply pointing a camera at it doesn’t guarantee a good photo.
So, how do you make an image of your local wood look more eye-catching than a holiday picture of the Grand Canyon? We’ll be exploring the best ways to compose and construct a picture for maximum impact, find out how to ensure that every shot is pin-sharp, and learn the importance of light and how to become visually sensitive to its changing nuances.
There is no formulaic way of taking a good picture of a wild place, of course, but there are a few tips and tricks that will improve your images overnight.
MEET THE EXPERT: John Shaw, USA
John Shaw has been a professional nature photographer since the early 1970s. He has won many awards and written seven books.
John doesn’t like rules in photography. Who says you have to shoot certain subjects vertically and others horizontally, or that you must use a wide-angle lens to photograph landscapes?
He stresses the importance of light, pointing out that it’s almost impossible to take a great picture in horrible light. “Most people take pictures of things – rocks, mountains, trees – but a good landscape photographer takes pictures of light,” he explains.
John points out that “anywhere in the world can be magical if you are there at the right time” and if you learn to take advantage of the different seasons and the best light at the beginning or end of the day.
And he positively loves bad weather. “Bad weather is really good weather when you’re a landscape photographer,” he says, “because you’re always looking for mood and drama.”
John thinks like an artist rather than a technician. “Just analyse the word ‘photo-graphic’ and you’ll begin to understand the importance of design,” he says. “Good photography is all about good design – shapes, lines, colours and textures.”
The golden rule is simplicity and, with this in mind, it’s important to peel away the visual clutter.
John wishes more people could use a 5x4 view camera, which shows the world upside down and backwards, because it takes away all familiarity. “What better way to force photographers to see beyond the subject and think in terms of those two key elements: light and design?”
John Shaw’s top landscape photography tips
Use the light
Light is the essence of landscape photography. Beautiful or dramatic light can transform an otherwise ordinary picture into an extraordinary one. The best light is at the beginning or end of the day, at the edge between daylight and darkness, when the sun is close to or even below the horizon.
Design the picture
Light may be the essence of landscape photography, but careful design is the basic ingredient. Think graphically – beyond the actual subject. Try setting the lens slightly out of focus for a few moments before taking the picture to help you see the shapes, lines, colours and textures more prominently.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
- Use the rule of thirds
Rules are made to be broken in photography, but this one works surprisingly often. It states that a well-balanced picture is divided into thirds (eg one-third sky and two-thirds land) rather than halves (with the horizon in the middle).The rule of thirds also helps create a sense of dynamic tension by identifying ‘points of power’.
Imagine drawing two horizontal and two vertical lines across the frame to produce four points where the lines cross. Then try positioning a rock or a tree on one of those points instead of dead centre. It makes the picture far more compelling.
- Try a telephoto lens
There is no single correct lens for landscape photography, but try using a telephoto instead of a wide-angle to get a different effect. A telephoto lens compresses the scene while also bringing it closer – so it’s not the same as moving nearer to a particular part of the picture. The isolation effect of a telephoto, which makes it much easier to remove all the clutter and focus on just one element, helps to pare down picture-taking to the bare essentials of composition.
Using a wide-angle lens very close to a natural subject in the foreground, with the rest of the scene disappearing into the distance, adds drama and depth. It decompresses the view and makes a two-dimensional image much more three-dimensional. Keep the foreground subject in sharp focus or it won’t work.
- Add some foreground interest
Try using a rock, flower, tree or even water ripples to add some foreground interest to your landscape pictures.
Get down low (if your hands and knees aren’t muddy you’re not low enough) to give it a really dramatic perspective.
- Define your subject
A professional landscape photographer is able to define the precise subject and purpose of any picture. Vague feelings are not enough.
Try saying outloud what you’re planning to photograph (see through the jumble of features in a landscape and think in terms of lines, shapes, colours, textures and patterns), then include what fits your definition and nothing else.
The simpler your brief, the better the picture will be.
Before you release the shutter, do a final viewfinder check for unwanted branches, rocks or even jet trails disrupting the composition.
ESSENTIAL KIT: Tripod
A landscape photographer without a tripod is like a boat without a keel. It’s one of the most important accessories you’ll ever own and will sharpen your pictures immediately.
What to look for:
- Weight – heavier usually means sturdier (though most professionals use carbon-fibre models that are sturdy but relatively lightweight).
- Heavy-duty head – a good quality tripod head provides easy, smooth movements in all directions.
- Legs – these must be easy to extend and adjust, and should offer a comfortable maximum working height.
- Monopod – a one-legged tripod (if that makes sense) that isn’t as steady as its three-legged friend, but better than nothing at all.
- Brick-sized bean bag – fill it up with beans, rice or even birdfood and use it to rest your camera on fence posts, rocks, bird hides and car windows.
DOS & DON'TS:
- DO take time to think about the picture you are taking. Don’t just hope for the best.
- DO try to get one outstanding picture rather than several mediocre ones.
- DO keep it simple.
- DON’T fill the picture with too much clutter – less is more.
- DON’T take pictures in the harsh, contrasting light of the midday sun.
- DON’T stay indoors because it’s raining.
If you enjoyed this masterclass, why not read the next part?