How-To: Compose and Photograph Landscape Photos

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Landscapes are a joy for many people to photograph. Indeed, whatever nature offers you can be really quite beautiful when you stumble upon it and you find the right light. Often, the best landscape images are carefully composed and timed just right with a bunch of different creative effects. Before that, there is usually a lot of careful thought put into it.

Here are some tips on the basics of composing and shooting landscape images.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the classic way of composing images. It splits your frame into nine equal sections. To create more visually interesting images, the rule says that you should place your subjects on the lines or the intersecting areas. It is a rule that has been used for years and works very well.

To make the absolute most of it though, try zooming your lens in and out or moving around and looking through the viewfinder until you find something you like.

If it is tough to memorize the rule of thirds, also consider making it visible in your camera’s viewfinder by cycling through the menus. If you can’t do that, you can often display it on the LCD screen when in live view mode.

Accept that you won’t always make the best exposure in one image; almost nobody does! Shoot multiple images and experiment; but try to only shoot scenes that you really fall in love with.

Look for Elements

Landscapes have depth to them. The images you compose have three sections: the foreground (closest to the viewer), the middle ground (in the middle), and the background (furthest from the viewer). Objects in your scene are in different places throughout the image and can move from one section to another.

Maybe you’re shooting a seascape with rocks or perhaps a desert scene with a dead tree and bones. A great example is how a tree branch starts from one area of the image and ends in the other area. These elements help to tell more of a story in your image. It is often a great practice to place these elements in your photo using the rule of thirds.

Besides actual objects, these elements can be other things such as colors. Pay attention to how the objects may travel throughout the scene as well.


One of the best things to do landscape photography is provide some sort of balance in your images. This balance is often between the land, sea, sky, or other objects. As spoken about earlier, it is also often directly affected by colors and other elements in a scene.

Many of the world’s most iconic images of the New York City skyline work so well because of the fact that there is so much balance in the image between the sky, the surrounding rivers, and the buildings in the area.

Part of this concept has to do with positive space and negative space. Positive space makes up the more important parts of your scene, such as the subject. Negative space makes up the lesser important but still valuable areas: such as dark skies or a black background.

Exposing For the Details

Hunting for the right light can be tough enough; but sometimes when looking out at a scene, you can see magic come to life in front of you. For starters, take the camera off of auto mode and switch it into manual. This will allow you all the control you can possibly have.

Advanced photographers often use a rule called Sunny 16. It basically states that in bright sunlight at f16, your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your ISO; so ISO 100 will give you a shutter speed of 1/100th at F16 in totally bright sunlight. The rule is then modified for different amounts of light in a scene.

However, another useful idea is to use spot metering on your camera. Once you’ve selected the spot metering option, place the selected spot over a highlight, take a meter reading, then place it over a shadow detail and take another meter reading.

Your camera can only capture so much information in the scene though without some sort of help. The reason for this is because of dynamic range. Dynamic range is a measure of just how much detail can be pulled from the highlights or pushed from the shadows.

Many cameras have the option of shooting high dynamic range images; which captures a bunch of images and fuses elements of all them into one. Most serious landscape shooters usually import the images into their favorite image editing software and fuse them together.

Just remember:

Sunlight = 15-20 stops of light

Human eye = 17 stops of light

Camera = 8-11 stops of light

Polarizing Filters

Here’s a way to make shooting landscapes even simpler: use a piece of polarizing glass or a neutral density filter to cover the highlights in your image.

For sunrises or sunsets, the key is to expose your scene correctly for the foreground (the area closest to your camera) by using your camera’s ability to spot meter. This area will often contain the most shadow details. Right before you press the shutter release button, slide a graduated neutral density filter in place in order for it to cover the overexposed areas (like the sky). Now hold it in place and shoot.

An old trick of many photographers is to use gaffers tape to hold the filter in place.

Landscapes can be very tricky to shoot. But creating the images in the camera is only the start of creating an image. Many landscape photographers will tell you that getting a better image is all in the post-processing.

We will cover that in a future post.

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