We've all been through the experience: driving through beautiful scenery, you stop at each viewpoint to take photos that capture the grandeur of what you see.
You come home, look at the photos and find them boring and boring. All the elements that delighted him at the time are there, but not the feeling. Why?
When we look at a landscape, our eyes scan it and focus selectively on the elements we find attractive. Our field of vision covers much of the scene, but our eyes and brain have the ability to ignore all but the most conspicuous details. Lenses and sensors or film cannot do this alone. They need help.
Time is the most important investment you can make in getting good landscape photos. When you arrive somewhere you've never been before, spend time exploring, driving or walking to different places, finding different vantage points. Take a compass to find out where the sun will rise and set, and imagine what the place would look like in different kinds of light. This may take some practice because you also have to look at where the light will not fall. When photographing a canyon, for example, you can see that the west wall will be beautifully lit early in the morning; like a big black bubble. Unless this is the desired effect, you'll need to modify your composition, shoot it later in the day, or plan to return on a cloudy day when both sides can be photographed.
If a river or stream runs through the landscape you are photographing, think about its character and how to convey that character in the image. A large, slow-moving river looks and feels different from a fast-moving mountain stream. Water can be the focus of the image or it can serve as an element of your composition, as a diagonal or other guide line, as a horizontal line, or as a shape that complements other elements in the frame.
Look closely at the reflections in the water. You can use some reflections to enhance the image, for example the colors of reflected autumn leaves, but others can be distracting. You may have to move around a bit to include or remove them, or come back when the sun is at a different angle. Use a polarizing filter to remove some glare and increase contrast; rotate it until you get the desired effect.
Photographing forests presents a different set of challenges. First, think about the forest character you want to photograph and the feeling you want to convey in your image. Should it look dark and brooding, or light and airy? Is there a special feature that helps you express how you feel about it?
As with any photograph, find a point of interest. It could be a slightly different tree trunk, a winding path, or a splash of color on a flowering vine. Whatever it is, compose it in a way that draws the viewer into it. Look for rays of light penetrating the canopy or a spot on the forest floor lit directly by the sun.
Whether you're shooting in or in a forest, look for patterns, lines, and other compositional elements that you can use. Try wide-angle and telephoto lenses. A wide lens looking at the trees will make them fly; a telephoto lens will compress a row of logs. Lie down and look up through the branches; Climb a tree to watch the path.
Plains and Grasslands
Wide open spaces, such as plains and grasslands, are among the most difficult landscapes to photograph because they often lack an obvious point of interest. In most cases, the full scope of the scene is one of the things you are trying to communicate. Still, remember that viewers need something to focus on. Find an element peculiar to that place and use it as a point of interest that says something about the scene and gives it a sense of scale. You don't want the viewer's eyes to wander aimlessly around the frame, so use whatever is available to guide them into the image: a winding path, stream, or fence, for example.
Like any forest, each plain has its own personality, so research until you find an angle and composition that reflect it. What is the most important feature of this particular place? Think about heaven. Do you want a lot or a little? A clear blue sky may best reflect the character of one plain, a gathering storm on another. Remember the rule of thirds. If the sky is important, place the horizon along the bottom third of the frame. If not, place it in the top third.
Find ways to showcase the wilderness and beauty of deserts. In the middle of the day, he encounters waves of heat. By using a long lens to compress them, you'll get dramatic shots that really say "hot." Deserts are also great places for stargazing. There's no moisture and generally no interfering terrestrial light, so the stars appear more numerous and extraordinarily bright. Notice how the color of the sand changes throughout the day with the angle of the sun. Think of ways to capture the features of the desert. A wide shot might better portray a desert, while a close-up of a plant struggling to survive next to a dune might better portray another.
Consider including the sun in your photography - it's a safe way of saying hot and harsh. But photographing the sun is complicated. On a clear day, the sun is so bright that the camera's meter will tend to underexpose everything else in the frame. Shoot in manual mode or take a reading without the sun in the frame, pressing the shutter button halfway to hold the exposure, then reframing before shooting. If you're shooting a movie, use lots of brackets to ensure the exposure you want. With a digital camera, check images as you shoot. Wide angle lenses tend to work better because the blowing sun takes up less of the image, but they are susceptible to lens flare. The advantage of SLRs is that you can see the reflection when you frame the shot.
Consider these different scenes: a tranquil tropical island with turquoise water lapping at a white-sand beach; storm waves breaking on a rocky New England shoreline; a densely populated holiday beach. What kind of coastline are you photographing and how can you best convey it? What time of day, what kind of weather and what season is most appropriate to show your character? These are the kinds of questions to ask yourself as you find the right vantage point and composition before shooting. Every coast is different in some way. Show the difference in your images.
Once you've thought about the character of the beach, look for items you can use to reinforce the feeling you're going for. Palm trees are a good setting for a tropical beach; a splash of water on rocks adds drama to a rugged coastal scene. Like in the desert, be careful with the sand. If it's windy, be sure to protect your camera and lens from blowing sand. Do not open the back of the camera unless you are in a well protected area.
Are the mountains you are photographing rugged or eroded, threatening or enchanting? What feeling do you get from them? Look for elements that reinforce your feeling and convey it to the viewer. What composition, angle, light and mood do you find most appropriate? Also look for telltale details that reflect the spirit of the mountains.