Capturing powerful landscape photographs, images that might be considered “Fine Art,” is no easy task. Here are 7 tips that have helped me to capture better, more meaningful landscape photos.
Don’t worry too much about the “Fine Art” concept
There are endless online discussions about the true concept of Fine Art, many regarding photography. As soon as you say that you’re a “Fine Art” photographer you are bound to hear criticism, mostly centered around the thought that you are being elitist and vain using such terms.
Paintings or sculptures do not usually need to be labeled as “Fine Art”, as they are intuitively recognized as such. But in the middle of millions of snapshots, what should you call the images you’ve put so much effort into?
The truth is there is no right answer, so I encourage you not to worry about the label.
Choose to focus on the fact that, if you are putting your soul and vision in your work, trying to show the landscapes you witness with the greatest impact and/or emotion, then you are most certainly creating “art,” probably “art” that is clearly “fine”…
It will always be about the light
You’ve probably seen this tip mentioned often, but it’s still as true now as it was the first time it was written. Unless you have the talent of a landscape painter like Turner (and if you do, why are you a photographer?), you will always need to get the best possible light to turn mundane scenes into remarkable images.
Special light creates special images, and this is absolutely true in landscape photography. Shooting gorgeous scenery under harsh light and clear skies will create a good photo, but probably not a remarkable one as it will lack contrast, depth, tonal range and “emotion.”
Creating “art” requires the presence of an “Artisan” who is also an “Artist”, meaning that he is both skilled in his craft and passionate about his subject. One of the most important raw materials a photographer should work with is light, so you should always spend as much time as needed to find the perfect light conditions to shoot a scene. Every now and then you might get lucky and find stunning light by chance, but this is a chase that invariably requires many hours of preparation and scouting.
Never forget to check the weather
Building on the previous tip, finding great light depends on being able to account for a large number of weather-related variables. Weather forecast websites like Weather Underground will be some of your best friends when you are choosing a location to shoot on a certain day—not only because they’ll help you avoid getting caught in a downpour, but also to look for places with partial of fully covered cloudy skies, which will usually create the most dramatic and captivating light.
Consult the Smartphone Oracle about the Sun’s position
Nowadays, we have very interesting smartphone apps with tools to predict sunrise and sunset locations, like Photo Pills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or desktop websites like Suncalc.net. These will be extremely useful because they tell you in advance where the sun will be located at a certain time.
For a more detailed virtual reality simulation of the sun movement during the day, you can also use the freeware program Stellarium on your desktop computer. For specific landscapes you will want to know the exact place where the sun will rise or set, and use it as a way to enhance your composition, increasing the chances of capturing that remarkable image.
Patience and persistence will always pay off
Landscape photographers work with the most stubborn and unpredictable light assistant ever, so you should be ready to cope with frustration, cold, stress, and physical pain.
People tend to think of landscape photography as a very Zen-like activity, but if you want to get the job done, be ready for a delicious adrenaline rush when you are trying to deal with temperamental gear, harsh environments, physical obstacles, and quickly changing light. The famous golden hour should unfortunately be called “the golden few minutes.”
You will need to return to the same place quite often, and frequently return home with no interesting images. You should be the first person arriving or the last one leaving your location, and meals will probably be skipped or scarfed down during odd hours. It’s not romantic or easy most of the time, but when all elements combine and you capture a great image, there’s nothing that comes close to that feeling of oneness and meaningful purpose!
Yes, you do really need to edit your images!
I couldn’t leave this one out, even though I’m pretty tired of the old debate around post-processing in the modern age. I will avoid stating my personal opinion on this subject, but I can tell you that editing is an absolutely essential part of creating remarkable images.
Everyone who spends a lot of time on the field, constantly looking to his LCD to review images, knows right from the start that as soon as the light enters the lens and hits the sensor, everything changes. One of the most reality-altering processes has already taken place: light transduction into a digital form. Then you come home with what we should call a digital negative (and yes, you need to use RAW to get the most out of your images), where contrast is low, shadows are dark, and some highlights might be blown out.
It’s time to “develop” your creation, tweaking the image to your liking, turning it from raw ingredients into a deliciously cooked meal.
There are endless ways to edit an image, and everyone will find his or her own path to do it—from simple Lightroom tweaking to complex Photoshop editing—just keep in mind that you need to make the most out of your image to maximize its visual and emotional potential.
Consider why you do it
There is one more crucial aspect to landscape photography as art, and it’s related to “meaning”. When you choose to pursue artistic photography, you can either use mechanical imitation as a foundation for what you do, or you can try to inject meaning into your actions as an artist.
The path of imitation might be filled with success, as long as you are talented at copying others (and many people certainly are). I would even go so far as to say this approach has its own merit, as most people wouldn’t be able to emulate accomplished artists, but the real problem with choosing to do this is that it will lead to either stagnation and dissatisfaction, or to the classical never-ending ego-bloating vicious circle.
So, if you are really trying to bring something new into the world through your images, you should start thinking about the powerful concept of “meaning”.
I think this is a much more important term than “innovation” or “originality,” as it provides a more solid emotional and mental framework upon which to build your vision. Many landscape photographers are obsessed with originality—with capturing that never-seen-before location or approaching well-known places through odd angles—instead of worrying about creating powerful, captivating, and meaningful images. Others are quite clearly too self-absorbed with success, fully centered around capturing the same places over and over with minor differences between shots, as long as it gets them the needed “likes” and “favorites”.
The question here is: if you are honest with yourself, can your inner complexity and uniqueness be genuinely compatible with such limiting creative paths? Probably not. So I think no one should go for either the imitation or the obsessive originality road, as none of them will probably be genuine.
Creating art with meaning will always be based on you being honest about what you are trying to show the viewer, and that will mostly depend on your mood and emotions at all stages of the image making process, as well as on your personal goals. This is a dynamic process, and it can be something as simple as sharing the beauty of nature with the world, or as complex as using images of nature to enter into conceptual, existential, or philosophical realms.
In the end what matters is that as long as you channel your inner constructive drives into the creation of art, then you are certainly headed for great things!