A beginner’s guide to shooting landscapes, having fun, and making better pictures.
When you’re getting started in photography, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by all the information floating around out there. I know when I was green, I just wanted some simple guides on how to shoot better pictures, and all I could find were books that either offered impractical philosophy or technical manuals that missed the point entirely.
Regardless of if you’re using digital, 35mm, or instant film, there are a few things to keep in mind that will instantly help you become a better photographer.
When I say landscape, I mean pretty much anything that isn’t people. People and animals can be in the shot, but the focus is on the scene, not any specific living subject. There are many other definitions, but this is the one I’ll be working with for our purposes here.
Much of this information is covered in depth by photographers and writers far better than I am. Hopefully this will give you a place to begin, and some practical advice as you continue your journey.
SHOOT WHAT YOU LIKE
When the urge arises to take a picture of something, there is usually a reason why you are inspired to create that image. It’s important to take a step back, and explore why you might be interested in that image, and then focus on that detail.
One of the most important aspects of photography is to shoot what interests you. That’s what will keep you shooting, and that’s what will make it fun. If you like old barns, shoot old barns and don’t apologize to anybody for it.
If you remember nothing else that I tell you, remember this: the key to learning how to take great photographs is experience. Lots of experience. Thousands upon thousands of pictures, and years upon years of shooting. And it will still not be enough. You’ll be learning until the day that you die, and only if you keep shooting.
If you’re starting out and you think you’re great, I got bad news. You’re not, and you got a whole lot of learning to do when you get over your self-delusion. If you’re starting out and you’re frustrated that you’re terrible – congratulations! You have great taste. Trust it. Nurture it. And someday your skills will catch up with your taste in pictures.
Photography is the art of subtraction.
It’s not about creating, it’s about cutting down on the noise and distractions to help somebody see something, sometimes for the first time.
Photography is communication. Your picture should evoke a mood, a message, an idea, a form, anything. But it should do something. Knowing what you’re saying is the key to focusing in on that aspect of the photo.
A great experiment is to force yourself to crop your photos. If you can only take a small square portion of your favorite photo, what are the parts you’d crop out? Chances are, the photo will only be better without them.
Another approach to this is to look at your photo when its the size of a postage stamp. Is it still compelling? If not, the photo probably isn’t great. Almost anything is interesting when it’s huge – it’s when it’s small that the true measure of a photo is found.
LOOK AT WHAT THE PICTURE IS, NOT WHAT YOU WANT IT TO BE
Photography is a literal medium. When we see a pretty sunset in real life, we’ll ignore the power lines and the clown standing in the bottom left corner to focus on the pink clouds. But in photography, the viewer is going to notice all that other stuff if you leave it in.
Lets say you see a really big bug. I mean, this thing is like five inches tall. It’s massive. You go take a picture of it, then look at the picture and are disappointed. It looks like a normal size bug hanging out on a wall.
Now, your message, the idea that you’re trying to convey is that the bug is huge. Obviously just taking a simple picture of it hanging on a wall isn’t achieving that. So what to do? Maybe change your perspective so that there is another object, like a windowsill, that gives it context. Maybe it’s putting on a wide angle and getting a lower, closer angle on it so that the bug looks bulging and huge in frame. Maybe it’s waiting until a smaller bug lands next to it. There are lots of options, but by knowing what your objective is, you’re able to form a more effective photograph.
You can adjust sliders to make an overcast day look like the storm of the century, but should you? Take a photo of an actual storm if that’s what you’re looking for. Forcing the issue never results in a good photo. We’ve all seen terrible over-HRD’d images where somebody is trying to make a dull scene something interesting.
Your technical skills are what will allow you to say what you want to say. But first you need to know what your message is.
LOVE WHERE YOU ARE, NOT WHERE YOU WISH YOU WERE
When I lived in Muncie, Indiana, I bemoaned the lack of landscapes to shoot. There were no beautiful beaches, no exotic forests, no soaring skyscrapers. I just had strip malls and worn down farms.
But you know what? There are a billion photos of every landmark known to man, but no pictures of an abandoned Chinese restaurant in downtown Muncie. It was a new perspective, and now I find myself missing Indiana. Embrace your surroundings that you have. Don’t let waiting for better surrounds give you an excuse to not shoot.
99% OF THE WORK IS HIKING, NOT TAKING PHOTOS
I don’t mean literal hiking (but sometimes I do if nature photography is your thing.) What I mean is that most of your work is finding an interesting scene. Then it’s up to you to not screw it up. Sometimes that takes a whole lot of walking, sometimes that takes exploring, and sometimes that takes a lot of going outside your comfort zone.
Every once in a while, a great image will come to you, but great landscape photographers always work for it. They go where nobody else goes, and wake up when everyone else is sleeping.
That’s the difference between a lazy snapshot that everyone has seen a thousand times and a great image that resonates with an audience.
THE MEDIUM IS A TOOL, NOT THE MESSAGE
One of the reasons I love film photography is that its transformational, and that it adds critical distance between the viewer and the subject. An image taken on film instantly looks different than a traditional digital snapshot, and I’ve found film is a potent tool.
However, don’t get too caught up in your format. Shoot with what you like and what you have. Don’t worry about not having professional equipment if you’re starting out. Today’s smartphone cameras are so powerful that everybody has access to a great camera. Get out there and shoot. Make mistakes and have fun.
DON’T GET LOST IN THE TECHNICAL
This leads me to a very similar point. Cameras and lenses are simply a tool. Learn to use them, and not the other way around. Mastery of the basics of aperture, shutter speed, iso, lenses, and film types will allow you to work faster and communicate better, but won’t make you a great photographer. There are many technically brilliant people who can’t take a great picture to save their lives. It’s what you have to say that matters.
TAKE THE PICTURES YOU WANT TO SEE
Nobody out there needs another landscape photographer, so take pictures that matter to you. Take pictures that you want to see. Take pictures that you’ll enjoy as the wallpaper on your desktop. Take photos you want to see on your wall.
If you make yourself happy, there’s a good chance your work will make a whole lot of other people happy too. But if you’re setting out with the goal to make photos that other people will like, that will amass thousands of likes, that will make you a fortune, you’re going to be disappointed more often than not.
Finding what you’re truly passionate about will make you great, and the rest will follow.
SHOOT LANDSCAPES IF YOU WANT TO SHOOT PORTRAITS
If portraits or other kinds of photography are your thing, you should still shoot landscapes. Why? Because I strongly believe that if your environments are too boring to sustain a landscape photograph, just adding a person won’t make it better. Shooting great landscapes develop skills that are critical to shooting great portraits.
By the way, the same is true the other way. If you only shoot landscapes, do some tabletop. Shoot a portrait session. Expand your toolset.
WIDE ANGLE LENSES AREN’T THE ONLY LENSES
Since landscapes are generally, well, kind of wide, there is a temptation to only ever use wide angle lenses. However, don’t be afraid to take your 50mm or even your telephotos out for a spin. See what other perspectives you can bring to your environment.
This is part of stepping back and deciding what about a certain scene is interesting to you. What captured your interest that made you stop and grab your camera? Is it how the shadows of leaves fall on each other? What about a closeup of that element where you can see that detail, rather than a lazy wide of the entire scene?
Also, if you’re shooting wide, how about getting closer to your subject? Getting far away with a telephoto? Play, and you’ll be surprised what you come up with.
SHARE WITHOUT WORRY
One of the biggest marks of an amateur who is taking themselves way, way too seriously is watermarks. I was guilty of this myself back in the day.
Watermarks distract from the image, are often terribly designed, and often make the photographer look like a buffoon. I swear, if I see one more terribly shot digital photograph with a giant watermark in a portfolio, I’m going to pull out my hair.
Text activates a portion of the brain that is very different from the one that enjoys visual form itself. Want to see it in action? Take any consumer electronic device, be it a phone, computer, or speaker, and cover up the logo with tape. The entire object will suddenly look different, because you’re looking at the object as a whole, rather than re-reading the logo text for the thousandth time. Our brains can’t help but read text.
There are circumstances where watermarks help. Are your tabletop images often stolen and used in eBay listings for products? Are you a major journalistic publication? Did you just take a picture of huge political event, and want to make sure you get paid? Are you shooting pornography? Watermarks are great. But if you have a pretty picture of a sunset, you don’t need it. Let your photo speak for itself.
All of this is a very wordy way of saying that watermarks are tacky.
DON’T LOSE SLEEP ABOUT YOUR ‘STYLE’
Many great photographers have a signature ‘style.’ People recognize their photos and organize them into tidy collections.
If you’re just starting out and you’re worried about what your particular style is, you’re missing the point. Your style will emerge organically as you try everything. Your style will form around the subjects that interest you, the formats that you return to, and the stories your images tell. Often, it will surprise you when you look back and find the patterns. The best styles come from the gut, not any sort of plan ahead of time.
THINK ABOUT IT
I’ve alluded to this before, but it bears repeating. When you’re taking a photo, take a breath and give yourself a moment to think it through.
Think about what you like to look at. Look at pictures you like, and try to understand what makes them compelling. Try to understand why that photographer used the tools they did. Also, what was the original crop of the photo, before they adjusted it? Learn from those around you, especially the photographers whose work you enjoy.
…BUT DON’T OVERTHINK IT
I’ve only taken a single photography class in my whole life, and it was awful.
The professor was a great guy and a solid photographer, but he was paralyzed by ‘photographic theory’ intellectual nonsense. We analyzed literary critiques of what was a picture, how did pictures work, and what a picture of a picture ‘meant,’ man. By attempting to deconstruct the very act of photography into a bunch of academic prose, it made the actual act of photography painful and meaningless. Nobody in the class learned how to make better images, and the professor himself could hardly bring himself to take pictures anymore.
This was when I was just two years into taking photography seriously as a hobby, and this class almost killed my desire to take photos entirely. Desperate, I looked around for something to counterbalance the nonsense. I found the utterly brilliant Art of Photography by Bruce Barnum.
The Art of Photography is my single most recommended book if you’re interested in any kind of photography. Bruce talks about the important stuff with such clarity and insight that it still makes me excited about taking pictures to this day.
At the end of the day, have fun. Not every photograph will be great, but sometimes the act of taking the photo can be just as important as the photo itself.
Do good work, and lots of it, and the rest will follow.
Want to grab an instant film camera of your own? Check out my guides to buying Polaroid and Fuji Instax cameras. Also, got a Polaroid camera and don’t know where to start? Check out my beginner’s guide to Polaroid cameras for some technical tips.