Karen Thorburn shares her tips for taking better landscape photographs.
If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know by now that my favourite topic to write about is my emotional attachment to the landscapes of Scotland. This month sees a brief departure from that; instead, I’d like to share with you some of my top not-too-technical tips to help you to improve your landscape photographs. 27 years after picking up my first camera as a young child back in 1991, I’m still striving to improve my skills and expand my knowledge of the landscapes around me. It’s a life-long process. Regardless of what stage you’ve reached with your photography and whether you’re shooting with a mobile phone or something more substantial, I hope you’ll find some inspiration here.
The best landscape photographs tend not to happen by accident. I always have an image in my mind’s eye every time I head out with my camera and adjust my expectations in response to the weather conditions and the quality of the light on the day. Forward planning can reap huge rewards. I moved to the Black Isle five and a half years ago and have invested a significant amount of time in getting to know my surroundings, marking the area’s minor roads and paths on a 1-25,000 Ordnance Survey map with a highlighter pen; jumping over gates and walking through harvested barley fields with binoculars around my neck; cycling along country roads on quiet Sunday afternoons; and scoping out hidden locations off the tourist trail. Far from wasting time that could have been spent doing photography, I’ve been getting to know my adopted home at an intimate level, establishing a connection that I hope to convey in my images as my portfolio grows.
Once you’ve established what you want to photograph, consider the direction of the sun in relation to your subject, particularly around sunrise and sunset, as this varies dramatically throughout the Scottish seasons. Check the weather forecast and tide times and don’t forget to think about logistics, such as where you can safely leave your car. In order to shoot during the ‘golden hours’ around dawn and dusk, set your alarm clock early or stay out late, and always give yourself time to spare. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing that five extra minutes in bed denied you a special photograph. I spend a lot of time exploring locations with my loved ones on day trips and holidays but, when it comes to landscape photography, I prefer to work alone without forcing a non-photographer to wait for the light to change or the breeze to drop, time ticking slowly by. Last year I made the mistake of answering my ringing mobile phone whilst in Culbokie Woods with my camera. The unwanted intrusion from a call centre shattered the tranquillity of the peaceful woodland and destroyed my focused mindset. I’ve learned from my mistakes. Nowadays my phone is switched to silent and tucked away in a pocket of my camera bag, where it can’t distract me.
When you arrive at your chosen spot, don’t be too quick to capture your photograph. During a week on Eigg four years ago, I saw another photographer set up his tripod numerous times without once looking through his camera’s viewfinder beforehand. If he was happy with his work, then great, but I can only imagine that he could have improved on his images if he’d put some thought into his compositions. Consider shooting from height or below eye level; try not to place subjects in the centre of the frame; and avoid a horizon that cuts an image in half. Use leading lines to draw the eye into the frame and create a sense of depth on a two-dimensional image. Try to balance elements in a scene and avoid empty space. Imagine that your frame is divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Aim to place the most important elements in your scene where these lines intersect. Most importantly, don’t try to capture everything. Be mindful of what initially caught your attention and don’t be side-tracked from this. Choosing which elements to exclude is as important as deciding what to include in your photograph.
We’re 700 words into this article and we haven’t fired the shutter yet. We’re still not quite there. We’ve planned our trip, we’ve found the ideal location, we’ve safely mounted our cameras on our tripods and perfected our compositions in our viewfinders or LCD screens. Now it’s time to think about which filters and settings will enable the camera to capture the image in the same way that our eyes see it. The key is to maximise depth of focus and use a tripod, remote release and mirror-up mode (if shooting with a DSLR) in order to capture an image that’s sharp from the foreground to the horizon and free of any hint of camera shake. One of my main objectives on landscape photography workshops is to get my clients to shoot in manual mode. Initially they look like rabbits caught in the headlights but, by the end of the day, they’re confident about reading the camera’s in-built light meter, and selecting a low ISO, small aperture (large f number) and corresponding shutter speed.
Try capturing a number of images perhaps with a few tweaks to your camera settings, but avoid needlessly filling your memory card (and, consequently, your computer’s hard drive). Once you know you’ve captured a winning image, it’s time to move on in search of another landscape, or perhaps record some details around you, such as the beautiful pebbles and plants at your feet; original compositions that most photographers will overlook on their way to shoot ‘the big picture’. Capturing details is a great way to hone your skills and occupy your time when the light is too flat for meaningful landscape photography. If, after all your planning, the weather forecast didn’t live up to expectations or you’re just not feeling inspired, don’t try to salvage a mediocre image or force your creativity. Chalk it up to experience, head home for a well-deserved cup of coffee and return another day when the conditions are right.
With landscape photography, there is usually time to perfect images in-camera and therefore minimise time spent in post-production. I spend half my waking life behind my desk wishing I was outdoors, and so I always keep post-production to a minimum. RAW files (as opposed to JPEGs) require a little saturation and sharpening but the key is not to over-do it and to keep your photographs true to life.
We’re bombarded with hundreds of images online on a daily basis and, as a photographer, it’s easy to become discouraged. Look at other photographers’ work and be inspired by it or be critical of it, but don’t give up on your passion because you believe someone else’s images are better than yours. Don’t confine your kit to a cupboard because a camera club judge was critical of your work or it didn’t get many hits on social media. Find a genre to specialise in, work hard and become a master at it. Immerse yourself in photography. Subscribe to a blog or a magazine. Join a camera club or enrol in an online course to improve your skills. Photograph scenes that speak to you and not just the ones from jigsaw puzzles and shortbread tins; photograph them in an original way and others will find your images inspiring too.