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A Beginner’s Guide to Photographing Landscapes Part 1

Posted on November 17, 2014 @ 8:12 PM in Walking

Part 1: Think compositionally about the landscape 

Picture the scene. You’ve come home after work. The kids greet you with howls of “What’s for dinner – I’m starvin’!!” You amble over to the fridge to see what you can rustle up to quieten their relentless cries, only to discover that when you get there, the cupboard is (almost) bare! On occasions like this, I’m very likely to reach for the phone and put in an order for the chippy.  But my wife is made of more resilient stuff. And she happens to be a fabulous cook who has this amazing ability to rustle up delightful meals, without the need for any recipe. To my amazement and before my very eyes, she pulls out the very same meagre ingredients I was just surveying and, fifteen minutes later, we’re all sitting down to an wonderful dinner. It’s incredible how two people can look at the same thing – and yet see it entirely differently! One person sees the food and knows there must be a meal in there somewhere – the other has the vision to see potential and has the ability to create something from this potential.

At its heart, this is similar to the essence of landscape photography. To be able to view the landscape in such a way as you begin to see what is hidden there in plain sight. It’s about selecting what elements will work together. And it’s the capacity to arrange and frame those elements pleasingly.  But how do you begin to see a landscape bristling with potential like this? The good news is that there are ‘rules’ or - perhaps better - guidelines that can help train your eye to see the landscape, rather than just look at it. And I’m going to share some of these with you below! 

1. Use the rule of thirds to help compose your shots

The first photographic rule you will learn in any class or book is the rule of thirds. This rule breaks the composition of a photo up into thirds both horizontally and vertically. This means you have two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to help you compose your elements, so perhaps you would have the horizon running approximately along the upper line. In addition, it gives you four intersection points for you to place features (such as a rock outcrop or the setting sun). It seems that people tend to be drawn to these places when looking at images, and placing your points of interest here is more aesthetically pleasing.

Sunrise over Donard with the ‘Rule of Thirds’ grid superimposed. Look how use is made of the lower horizontal line and the top right intersection.

2. Lead the viewer into and around your photo with curved or diagonal lines

Not all lines in your photos need be horizontal, however. Diagonal lines can work very well to guide people into the shot. You could also use sweeping curved lines formed by features such as paths or rivers to guide the eye. People often start looking at the bottom of an image, so look for ways of guiding them in from there to the rest of your photo.

The blue hour following sunset at the Giant’s Causeway. Which lines does your eye follow in this picture?

3. Look for foreground interest

When you’re standing in a landscape, the sheer scale of the environment can draw your eyes upwards and outwards. But landscape photography is about depth and perspective, and using elements in the foreground as well and the mid-ground and background can help add interest to your photos and again help draw people into the shot, leading them further into the depth and planes of the view you’re capturing. It might be a rock outcrop, a flowering plant, a stream. Look for these and see if you can find pleasing ways of building them into your composition.

 

Doan sunburst

The rock and the moving water provide the foreground interest in this winter photo of Dunluce Castle

4. Use the pano function on your phone to capture the sense of horizontal scale

When you stand in the middle of a mountain range like the Mournes, part of the experience is how you seem to become immersed in the landscape. All around you, in every direction, peaks stretch upwards and valleys sweep majestically between them. Your phone will probably have a panoramic function. Use it to capture something of the horizontal sweep. But when doing so, remember the rules of composition. You will have to try to visualise the final shot, more than what can appear in the view finder at once. Think about your rule of thirds, your foreground interest, your leading lines. But the great thing about your phone is that you’ll get immediate feedback – how does the composition work when you’re finished? If things don’t quite line up properly, try it again!


A panoramic from the summit of Doan. Although I stitched this together in Photoshop, your phone will probably allow you to create a vista like this too.

5. Use vertical compositions to emphasise the sense of height in a mountain area or the sense of depth in landscapes

At other times, maybe it’s the vertical scale you want to emphasise. For example, it might be the mountains soaring upwards breaking the line of the horizon that you want to capture. In that case, turn your camera around through 90 degrees and shoot in what’s called portrait mode. Even in less grand landscapes, portrait mode can help you look for ways of building depth into your compositions. Look for something in the foreground that can capture the eye. Look for lines that can lead you in, or bands that can emphasise different planes of depth in the landscape.

Just before sunrise at Donard - the foreground rocks and the tiny person help give a sense of scale to the towering summit in the background

6. Use people to give your photos a sense of scale – and a point of human interest in your photos

When you’re standing in a landscape, the scale is obvious to you. If you’ve just climbed a mountain in the Mournes, you know exactly how high up you are! Sometimes, though, capturing that sense of scale in a photo can be challenging. One great way to do this is to include people in your landscapes. They can be close by or further into the distance, but placing them there can… One thing, though – it’s still a landscape shot, not a portrait. It’s often best to have the person standing with their back to you, facing the view. Or at least looking into the view, inviting the observer to join them in exploring the amazing landscape in front of them. 

Sunset from the top of Doan in the Mournes

7. Slow down

The last tip I’ll give here is simply to slow down when taking photos. You will have to pause and look carefully at the landscape, to see what’s actually there in front of you. Notice the elements before you. Think about the best location for you to stand in to arrange them well. Perhaps a few steps to the side will place that foreground element in the sweet spot compositionally. Experiment with a shot and check it out afterwards. Recompose, tweak, try again. As you do, you’ll begin the process of training your eye to see and not just to look. You may still have to phone the chippy when your fridge is nearly empty, but with time and practice, you’ll be able to see the compositional potential right in front of you in the landscape you enjoy walking through.

Alistair Hamill
Alistair Hamill  Landscape Photographer

Alistair is a landscape photographer who likes nothing better than trying to capture something of the stunning beauty of Northern Ireland’s wonderfully diverse landscapes. From getting his feet wet in the Atlantic Ocean on the North Coast, to forcing those same tired feet to clamber up yet another mountain in the Mournes, he loves to get out and about in our amazing countryside. www.alistairhamillphotography.com

3 comments have been posted in reply to this article

Posted by David Fulton on November 18, 2014 @ 10:10 PM

Great article with useful tips and wonderful photos, thanks :).

Posted by Maggie on November 29, 2014 @ 10:22 AM

Love the photos, magical. Thanks for the tips. How I long to take photos such as these. Please do a course. :-)

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