It’s never been a better time to get into landscape photography. There’s a wealth of information out there to help you learn the basics. Camera gear is easier and easier to use. And there’s plenty of fun platforms to share your work with others. But as a complete beginner, it can feel overwhelming to even know where to start. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. So here are a few things I wish I knew when I first started out — hope it helps!
Light: More than just sunrise and sunset
If you’ve read anything about photography at all you’ve probably come across this already… it is the most important after all. But there is more to the story.
The basic idea is that shooting during sunrise and sunset will lead to much better results than anything else you can do. Get out 30 minutes before the sun rises and shoot for an hour or so afterwards, then go out again an hour before it sets, staying for 30 minutes after. Why? Because light during this time of day is absolutely beautiful and translates to great images. And while all light has its uses, generally during the middle of day it is very harsh and yields worse results.
HOWEVER, while the light is better shooting at sunrise and sunset it doesn’t necessarily mean by default the light will be amazing. You can have very average light during these times too. Generally, when there are no clouds. What you’re looking for are great conditions. This can either be things like great color in the sky from clouds, rainbows and passing storms, mist rising from a lake or stream or anything else that adds visual interest to the photograph. So while the light at sunrise and sunset is definitely better than mid-day — remember that just because you crawled out of bed at 5AM it doesn’t necessarily mean you will get epic light.
Keep it simple and have a focus
When it comes to composing the elements in your scene (and after you’ve already found great light) the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep it simple. Everyone makes this mistake when their first starting out. In fact, the most frequent critique that I find myself giving when I judge contests or give portfolio reviews is that the image is way too busy and lacks a clear focus point. Make sure that you know exactly why you are taking the photo, what the subject is, and that there are very few other elements in the scene other than that point of interest. Most of the other supporting elements should be simple and clean with the purpose of adding to, not distracting from, the main focus.
When I was first starting out I would always hear people ask “what are you trying to say with this image?” For some people this message may resonate well. But it never made complete sense to me as I always thought that people were implying you needed to tell an entire story with one photo. If you’re simply taking a picture of a beautiful tree, does it need to tell an entire story? I’ve since learned that the most important thing is to have a solid focal point and that the viewer knows exactly why you took the photograph and why you found it interesting.
Always strive to tell a visual story but don’t get bogged down with the idea. Just focus on keeping it simple and clean along with as interesting as possible. Here’s a quick video tutorial on simplicity for further explanation.
Basic photo editing is mandatory whether you want to or not (and shooting raw)
As mentioned above, and I can’t stress it enough, things like finding amazing light and learning how to keep it simple are critical to creating great images. However, it is just as important to learn how to edit your photos! Even if this is something that you don’t necessarily want to do because A) you want to have unaltered images or B) you just don’t want to spend time on the computer. If you want to peruse photography in a serious way at all, editing is something you simply must do — to at least some extent.
Keep in mind that if you shoot in JPEG on a point and shoot, SLR, cell phone, etc. the camera is already applying settings to your photograph. There is no such thing as an un-altered image. Even in the good old days of film! Most people are extremely surprised to find out how much “editing” Ansel Adams did in the dark room.
When you shoot raw and do the editing yourself, you simply have the control and power to do the editing how you prefer. This is as much the art of photography as taking the photograph in the first place. The more you shoot then edit afterwards, the better you’ll become at seeing the final edited version in your mind’s eye before you even click the button. Knowing what’s possible and how the final result will look is key to how you’ll shoot in the field.
If you don’t have an editing program, I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom as it is highly powerful yet much more simple to use than Photoshop. And if you’re not shooting in raw, there is absolutely not question as a landscape photographer you definitely should be.
Learn the rules and always break them
I encourage anyone starting off to learn everything they can about photography. And of course that has never been easier than now. There is an enormous amount of information online thanks to Youtube, blogs, eBooks, etc. However, there are also two main things to consider.
The first is to keep in mind is that many people putting content out there don’t really know what they are talking about. Always make sure you can find their photography and it greatly impresses you before you put a lot of stock in their thoughts and ideas. The second, is to make sure that you take everyone’s ideas, including my own, as a suggestion rather than a hard and fast rule. The same goes with the “rules or principals” of photography that have been around for years. This is art after all.
Just because an idea is out there and even if many people are sharing it, that does not mean it is correct. Information tends to get passed around online from person to person with the goal of sharing content versus providing original thoughts. Always feel free to do your own thing and never let yourself be put in a box. Listen to others ideas, mesh everything you hear together and then make it your own — allowing you to have your own unique creative vision.
Get gear that won’t hold you back but don’t obsess over it
Like so many things in life, it’s critical to have the right tool for the job. Unfortunately, with landscape photography most people are way more interested in the tools than actually doing the job in the first place. It is 100% critical to have great camera gear, as it will have a direct relationship with the quality of images you produce. But it’s very important to keep in mind that learning the art and technique of photography along with putting in the hard work of finding beautiful locations is way more important than the equipment you are using. While that might sound obvious, trust me, it’s not.
My advice is to shoot with the best gear you can afford and definitely make sure you spend time researching and finding the best gear for your needs. Once you’ve done that and have the gear, make sure that almost all of your focus is on creating art.
It’s okay to struggle – photography is difficult!
Another thing I’ve really learned over the years is just how difficult it is to be a good photographer and that it is completely okay if you are struggling to create great images. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do — and everyone is in the same boat. As you get better and better in some ways it gets easier. But because your expectations grow along with your skills, there’s always a certain level of disappointment. I think that’s a big part of why we love photography. The challenge and dedication that it takes to be good at it also makes it extremely fulfilling. Just keep in mind, you’re not alone when it comes to struggling.
For more thoughts on keeping positive about photography and some of my recent failures, feel free to watch the video I just made.
Looking back 15 years, I wish I would have known a few of these things. I hope they help you stay inspired and encourage you to get out there and create great images!
If you are looking for a fun way to improve your photography skills, you may want to consider taking one of my landscape photography workshops or a workshop from a photographer you love. I take a small group (usually 6-10 people) to explore places like Colorado, Utah, Norway, Iceland and Canada in search of great photographs while working on concepts such as light, composition and more. We also spend classroom time improving your photo editing.
I truly believe that a photo workshop is the best way to grow skills as quickly as possible!