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The Landscape

There are few things more joyful to us than the thrill of photographing the landscape, and because it's so accessible and so abundant, we're never in short supply of subject matter. The best part, of course, is that the light is never the same twice: we can visit the same area at the same time every day and never get exactly the same picture-even subtle shifts can produce dramatically different results.

But good landscape photography is not as simple as it seems. The trick is learning how to find the key elements of a scene that will make your pictures sing. You must teach your eye to evaluate an enormous set of possibilities, then translate the scene into a photographic image that will convey all the depth, scope, and drama of the image.

There are a number of techniques that can help you avoid many of the mistakes that are made by the average point-and-shoot photographer.


Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

If there's one thing that we try to get across to students in our photographic classes, it's this: simplify! In nature it's so easy to get lost in the clutter. The landscape as the eye sees it is dramatic, pleasing, harmonious. But the camera is more discriminating. It will capture for eternity the exact moment of the place, and along with this come all the quirks, wrinkles, and clutter.

This is why you need to be very clear about what you intend to photograph. Know your subject before you begin. If you have to sit and stare awhile before picking up your camera, then do it. Make a frame with your fingers like the old-time movie directors did, and pan the scene. For example, let's look at a mountain scene: the mountain is there, of course. There are some trees in the foreground; the sky is spectacular. There's a cabin off to the side. There's a fence, a couple of horses. Oh, and if you look a little closer, there are some low bushes, a dip in the landscape where a stream cuts through...

Sure, it all looks great together: the epitome of the American West. But shoot it exactly as you see it, and what happens? The horses look like ants, the dip of the stream becomes a strong horizontal line across the bottom that doesn't make sense to the eye, the trees are close and out of focus... there are so many ways to get this shot wrong that we can't enumerate them all.

So think about this scene some more. What's the point you're trying to make? Do you want to capture the spirit of the American West? Then maybe place that cabin in the foreground as the main subject, with a backdrop of the mountain. Are you trying to suggest the majesty of the wilderness? Then maybe isolate the mountain and sky. Tackle the scene any way you wish, but know what your goals are first. In landscape photography less is always more.

Illustrating Scope

Traditionally, the sheer magnitude of a scene has been captured with a wide-angle lens. But panoramic images have become increasingly popular in recent years. While this new format can be very appealing, it would be a mistake to think that it solves all the problems of capturing the drama of the landscape. Whether you're using a normal lens, a wide-angle lens, or a camera with panoramic capabilities, the problems of composing a panorama of the landscape remain the same.

To evoke the openness of the landscape, compose your photo with an emphasis on the distant horizon. Using the Rule of Thirds, place the transition from earth on one of the two horizontal planes. If there's a mountain peak or lone tree, try placing it off center one way or the other. A billow of clouds can also be placed in this manner. To emphasize a sense of space, keep the amount of foreground in the shot to a minimum.

Try various vantage points. Shooting down on the scene may emphasize the harmony of the environment. Shooting up at it may intensify its impact.

To illustrate scope, try to maximize the impact of the expanse of land across the cameras plane. To illustrate depth, your goal is to display the expanse of land that stretches away from the camera. You do this by choosing a foreground feature as your primary subject.

The foreground adds tension to the image and helps connect viewers to the photograph immediately, by drawing them into the scene and beyond to experience the complete environment.

To best illustrate depth, you should shoot a scene for maximum depth of field: your aim is sharp focus from foreground to background. This can be difficult to achieve, and often means shooting with a very small aperture, fl6 or ill. If there's even a gust of wind, the recommended shutter speed may be lower than you can reasonably use with this small aperture setting. If this is the case, open up to the required f-stop and let the far background go into soft focus.

But don't let the foreground image lose its sharpness; if you can't get the foreground sharp, try another lens or change the camera's position. Sharpness is everything in this type of shot. If you can't get it, don't shoot.

And don't forget to experiment with the differences between the vertical and the horizontal format. Often the solution to your design problem becomes obvious with the turn of the camera.


Natural light is an amazing thing-it changes hour to hour, day to day, and month to month. The light's color changes throughout the day, starting warm in the morning, turning blue as the afternoon progresses, and turning back to warm before darkness creeps in. The angle of light changes too: daily changes are obvious, of course, but seasonal effects give us some of our most spectacular moments. The intensity of light also has a great impact: pictures recorded at noon on a brilliant day will have a very different mood from those shot in the same place on a cloudy day. Light tends to bounce off other things, too, and this reflected light can cause glare and harsh hot spots on film, or it can be harnessed to fill in shadows.

Pick a scene you like, maybe one you travel by often on your way to work. Every day, look at what the light is doing. When it sparkles, note the month. When it glows, note the time of day. If you have a minute, stop and look closer. Ask yourself what it is about the quality of the light that draws your attention. Do you love its mellow mood? Or are you drawn to its vivid intensity? Light can change any scene into something completely different. We're always surprised when someone says to us, "Oh yes, I've already shot that. I was there two years ago." Wow! That scene has been through thousands of variations since then. Nature shows us its many moods every day. What you do with these moods is up to you.

The Edge of Light

Early morning and late evening are the witching hours of landscape photography. Scenes that you walked by all day suddenly begin to glow; clouds shimmer in warm tones of yellow and red; silhouettes spring to life.

You have to be ready when the light begins to change and shift- colors come and go quickly. When we're traveling, we scope out a new area during the day so we're ready when these magic light shows begin: we determine where the sun is likely to rise and set; we note likely subjects and backgrounds. Then, about half an hour before we think the light is going to change, we set up our tripods and wait. If we're spending a few days in the field, we note the successes and trials of that first day so we can alter our plans for the next day.

When you expect spectacular light, plan ahead: know where you're going to shoot so that you're ready when the light starts to change.


Along with the time of day, weather can play a huge role in creating memorable, moody images. A foggy morning or a rainy afternoon turn the landscape into a distinctly intimate environment. When the sun peeks through and reflects off these damp surfaces, a riot of possibilities occur. And we couldn't live without storms. We're always on the lockout for a buildup of cloud banks for creating moody images or adding some intensity to a special scene. See chapter 8 for further discussion of wild sky conditions.


Over the years we've traveled quite a bit, and we've encountered lots of situations where we said, "If only we knew such-and-such about this place, we could have come another time or stopped at another vantage point or brought a different piece of equipment." Before taking a trip, plan ahead to avoid disappointment: know what kinds of conditions you might encounter, and be prepared. We usually call the National Park Service in the state to which we're traveling for information on things such as peak foliage and wildflower blooms. Travel guides give us ideas about our routes and the best time to travel in certain areas.


Mountains love the light of early morning and late afternoon, when the sun kisses the tops of ridges and brings out the best they have to offer. Mountains create a dramatic silhouette when they're backlit by a rising or setting sun. Add some foreground to give your picture depth, and use the Rule of Thirds when you place your horizon.

Remember that the snow flies earlier in the mountains, so any trip to high elevations should be planned with the knowledge that passes can close suddenly and storms can appear out of nowhere. We have actually been prevented from crossing a pass in mid-July! Call ahead to find out conditions of any major passes you intend to cross on your travels.


We have sometimes found ourselves in canyons too early in the morning: light that's playing havoc with the surrounding ridges often doesn't make its way onto the canyon walls until later. Before that moment the canyon is dark and flat, and after the sun rises enough to stream directly in, the light is hot and shadowless. But oh, that moment between! It's definitely worth getting up and waiting for. The sun reaches over the walls and angles into the canyon and suddenly brown cliffs shimmer with a reddish glow. Shoot up at the walls and accentuate their colors with a slice of brilliant blue sky at the top of the frame.

Canyons seem to have their own weather: very chilly mornings are often followed by scorching afternoons. Be prepared for all sorts of weather.

Moving Water

Overcast days are a great time to shoot around streams and waterfalls. The soft light brings out the intensity of the colors and keeps the reflections softer and more subdued. You'll need your polarizing filter to control glare.

Experiment with different shutter speeds when you shoot around moving water: make a stream smooth and silky by shooting at Yi second, or catch every bump and ripple by shooting at 1/2. Try running a whole series of shutter speeds at one location. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the variety of interesting effects.

If you're going to hike in to a special waterfall, ask a ranger when to expect the best light. Many waterfalls are in deep forests, where they get a lot of shade. Sometimes midday is the only time they're properly illuminated. Again, play with shutter speeds to create different effects.

Deep Forests

Because the treetops create a heavy canopy, the deep forest has an environment distinctly its own. It's a world of green, and for us, the more intense and mistier, the better. Textures and colors are intense at midday, when the light is strongest. When you're hiking through deep

forest, look for moments of high contrast: the rich brown of a tree trunk against a wall of green; the intense yellow of a mushroom emerging from a rotted stump. Look up to see slivers of brilliant blue behind clouds of green leaves. Take along a small reflector to help bounce light onto shadowed subjects.

Fall Foliage

A swirl of vivid autumn colors is often so intense that it's tempting to just point and shoot. Avoid this impulse, and instead study the forest for subjects that can anchor your image. Look for simplicity of line and form amid the sea of color to achieve a shot that's really memorable. A dark branch against yellow leaves, brilliant white birch bark in a sea of red and orange, or a sliver of blue sky framing a solitary maple tree all offer tantalizing possibilities.

You can find spectacular autumn foliage in many places across the country. Though we are partial to our New England leaf season, we have often traveled to Colorado to catch those intense yellow aspens against the brilliant mountain skies. You can call the National Park Service or your state's forest service to get recreational information. Some state governments even have 800-number hotlines to keep you up to date on foliage changes.



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