9 top tips for taking amazing landscape photos

by Aug 3, 2017Photography

Who hasn’t pointed a camera at a jaw-dropping scene outdoors, only to be disappointed later at how little the photo resembles the soaring mountains, translucent skies, and luxuriant green hills? Landscape photographer and instructor Rick Saez has a few tips for those seeking amazing landscape photos that truly show off what you saw out there. Read on for an overview of Rick’s top landscape photography tips so you can learn to take amazing landscape photos yourself:

Vision

I find that I achieve better results when I’ve done some research on the area and visualized at least a few of the images I hope to capture. Doing this enables me to be more patient when I’m in the environment. To start, a simple web search for area images provides a lot of information. Also, there are a number of great tools available to help you understand what the light is going to do and when, and which areas of the landscape to focus on. My favorite light tool is The Photographers Ephemeris. This provides details on when and where the sun and moon will rise and set. You can even pinpoint where you want to shoot to catch exactly your vision because you will know precisely when the prime light time to be there will be.

I had in my mind this penguin image, which I captured on South Georgia Island, well before I boarded the plane for South America. Even though I wasn’t sure we would visit a location with thousands of penguins I knew we would be in the neighborhood and I was ready when we arrived.

1000 penguins on South Georgia Island

Patience

Landscape photography takes a fair amount of patience. Whether I’m waiting for that first hint of sunlight to bathe a peak in a warm glow or the final light of day to warm up the clouds, I find myself waiting … a lot. I always get to a location with plenty of time to explore and wander around to find the composition I’m seeking. Once I find it, I’ll set up. And then wait. Sometime for an hour or more, sometimes only for a few minutes. Be sure not to leave too early either; often, the best light is after the sun has set.

A couple of buddies and I had been waiting for this Half Dome shot in Yosemite National Park for quite some time. The sky was cloudy, and as the sun sank the light just kept getting worse. We packed up and were walking back to the car. As I was loading gear in, I glanced in the side mirror and saw the sky exploding with color. We scrambled to find a nice place to shoot, and this is the result. As the sun moved below the clouds it reflected light from below. Whew, I’m glad I noticed the mirror!

Half Dome at sunset

Light

Light is the critical element in all photography genres. Light is really what we are capturing. Knowing where light is coming from and anticipating what it is going to do will help you capture better photos. Light comes from all directions. Front light, side light, back light are all phrases you may be familiar with, and each impacts images in unique ways. It is also important to be aware of reflected light, as was capture with the Half Dome image, above.

Bishop Creek Canyon outside of Bishop, Calif., is a very narrow canyon. There, some of the best light occurs when the sun is below the canyon reflecting off the sidewalls. For this photo, as the sun was rising but still below the canyon in front of me, the first light was beginning to reflect off the canyon behind me. The nice soft diffused light bathed this stand of aspens as if I were holding a diffuser the size of a house. This is one of my best selling images.

Bishop Creek aspens

Composition

Less is more when you are seeking to take amazing landscape photos. When composing a shot, I’m generally moving around, trying different angles or perspectives, or zooming in trying to remove elements from the scene without being forced to rely on post-processing. Too many objects in the foreground or a distracting background however can be challenging. Opening up my lens to an aperture of f/3.5 or f/2.8 also lets in more light and enables me to blur the background.

In this fall color shot at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra I chose to open up my lens to f/2.8 and blur the background. This focused the viewers attention on the foreground leaves while also showing the magnificent color of the aspens across the lake.

Convict Lake

The Power of Fours

I capture four images almost every time I take a photo: wide or zoomed out, tight or zoomed in, horizontal or vertical. I have two reasons for this: First, this gives me a variety of options when editing since often each image has its unique appeal; second, if I’m selling the image to clients or printing it, this enables me to provide a variety of perspectives.

This image of a lenticular or wave cloud captured in the Owens Valley demonstrates how I captured the four different images.

Owens Valley Wave wide shot

Owens Valley Wave tight shot

Owens Valley Wave vertical shot

Owens Valley Wave horizontal shot

Move

With any type of photography moving yourself is a great tactic to employ and the simplest way to gain different perspectives. Most of the time I move to get closer, but moving back or to the side are also good ideas. Try something from a different angle if you can, too. Climb on a ledge, wall or rock, kneel down or even lay down.

For this image of the mud flats in Death Valley near the dunes at Stovepipe Wells, I set up my tripod with its legs spread as wide as possible and lay on my stomach to capture the image.

Death Valley mud flat amazing landscape photo

Stability

A solid tripod is a must for landscape photography since it is just not possible to hold your camera by hand for what you need. Frequently, you are shooting at dawn or dusk in such low light that without a tripod your images would not be utterly sharp. Aside from your camera body and lenses, a tripod is a critical piece of equipment; be sure to invest in good quality. Lightweight carbon fiber is not a must, but I find it much easier to carry on long walks from a vehicle.

This image from the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was captured at dawn well before the sun was up. This is when the Snow Geese leave the safety of the ponds where they roost overnight to go feed all day before coming back each night to roost. Without a tripod, this would have been one big blur.

Bosque birds in flight

Filters

Post-production and camera software has become quite powerful in recent years. Digital cameras are able to capture a much wider range of light than old slide film. I still believe is it best to capture the best image you can in camera, though, and not rely on post-processing. I use filters to help me do this. My three go-to types of filters are a polarizer, three different densities of neutral density filters, and a split neutral density filter.

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A polarizing filter allows me to control light, particularly reflections and glare. I shoot a lot of fly fishing images and using a polarizing filter enabled me to reduce the reflection and almost see in the water on this Colorado Cutthroat image.

Polarized image of a trout

Polarized filter

Neutral density filters are available in a variety of densities. Using a very dense or dark neutral density filter allowed me to shoot in sunlight while using a very slow shutter speed so I could blur the water in Division Creek while capturing the annual Lupine bloom.

Neutral density filter image

Neutral density filter

A split neutral filter allows me to control light for sunrise and sunset shots. Capturing a field of wildflowers at dawn as the sunlight hits the peaks would be impossible without a split neutral density filter. This filter is split with one half dark or “filtered,” and the other completely clear. In the shot of an iris field at dawn the irises would have been under-exposed if I had exposed for the peaks, and the peaks would have been over-exposed if I had exposed for the irises. Using a split neutral density filter I could orient the dark side to expose for the peaks and clear side allowed enough light for proper exposure of the irises.

Split neutral density filter

Split neutral density filter

Lenses

I shoot most of my landscape images with one of three zoom lenses: I’ve been a Nikon shooter for a long time, but I have also started using a Sony mirrorless DSLR and know my way around other cameras including smartphones. With the Nikon, I primarily use a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and sometimes a 70-200mm f/2.8. Shooting with lenses that have focal lengths of f/2.8 give me the option of shooting in low light, plus a variety of creative options for shallow depths of field. I love these three lenses as they enable me to capture images in almost any situation. I realize everyone does not have the budget for $3,000 lenses, but many of the lenses you get in kits with camera bodies are terrific. I believe it was Chase Jarvis who said, the best camera is the camera you have with you, and I agree. Shoot with what you have and what you can afford, and if your budget allows for upgrades spend your money on lenses.

Big Bend in Zion

Enjoy the moment too

Perhaps not a photography tip, I have one thing to add: Don’t forget to have fun! Take a step back, and enjoy the moment with your own eyes, too. The natural environment is an amazing place, and if you’re lucky to be in the right spot at the right time, nature can put on quite a show. And you’ll have a front row seat.

Cheetah peering out.


Check our more of Rick Saez’s photographs at Rick Saez Photography

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24 Comments

  1. Lots of great tips here for the amateur photographer. I loved the creek shot with the blurred water, very atmospheric. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Thank you Angela! We love the creek shot too … and using that neutral density filter to get it. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Incredible photography. Love all of these tips, especially the last one about enjoying the moment. Very true.

    Reply
    • Enjoying every moment is so key! And so happy you found the article useful and that you appreciate the photography. Thank you for your comment! 😉

      Reply
  3. Rick, thanks for breaking this down!
    I use a T6 and just ordered my first 50mm lens (not the ones from the kits) and I am looking forward to figuring out composition and exposure for amazing photos like these!

    Reply
    • Good luck with the learning curve. Make mistakes because with the beauty of digital is you can just delete! Remember some landscapes will require a wider angle than a 50 — and do remember that for APS-C lens or some others, that 50 may actually translate into a 75 or more. meaning it may not be wide enough for many landscapes. Not a Canon person here but the T6 is a crop lens I think. have fun

      Reply
  4. There are a LOT of great tips here that I’m definitely paying attention too. He’s right on the patience thing. And I have to remember to step and enjoy more. I’m usually too busy trying to get the shot and thinking “I will have it forever if…” but you can do both. I also need to get more experience with filters. It would help so much with reflection shots!

    Reply
    • Sometimes you just have to put the camera down too and enjoy, right?

      Reply
  5. You have great tips. As a family, we really want to invest in a good camera and lenses to capture the best possible images. I think the key to everything you mention is patience. It takes a lot of forethought and patience to capture the perfect image. The photos presented are breathtaking. And as someone who used to live near the Sierra Nevada, I appreciated seeing some images from “home.”

    Reply
    • Patience, in that you don’t want to just snap and go. Stop and look for a minute and even move around. Landscapes aren’t going anywhere (unless the light is changing quickly!) so you have a bit of time to think.

      Reply
  6. Great tips. I’m trying to improve the composition and the framing of my images. It’s the playful photos resulting from childish curiosities tgat turn oit the best. I am trying to do that in a more conscious manner on the less interesting spots, too.

    Reply
    • Yes, those playful photos are sometimes just fun and really nice. the ones that you love and make you smile. nothing wrong with that.

      Reply
  7. This is such an inspiring post. I love to take beautiful landscapes but I still have so much to learn. Firstly, I need to stop forgetting my tripod when I go away…so many of my shots are that one big blur! I had no idea about polarised lenses. I think I will be investing.

    Reply
    • Polarized lenses can be WONDERFULLY life-changing with some landscapes — or even in other bright situations. They toned down what would have been a washed-out sky in the middle of the day in the desert for me lately! Tripods are dandy, but there are ways to shoot without them too so you aren’t always laden down. No, you won’t be doing long exposures, but you can prop on a friend, against’ a tree or light post or o a rock. Then inhale and hold your breath when you are ready to shoot so your breathing doesn’t move the camera at all.

      Reply
  8. Thank you for some great tips. I must admit that until quite recently I was a “point and click person” and even now, I usually take lots and hope that at least one is acceptable! This is certainly easier in these days of digital photography. I was reassured by your tip to take four shots for each image therefore. I particularly love the photo of the salt flats in Death Valley. The point about changing your own position to get the shot is especially useful.

    Reply
    • Sometimes digital makes it too easy to not think and just click and then SAY we will delete — but do we? not always. so thousands of so-so photos later… yeah, happens to us all. Do stop and think a bit. and then move around!

      Reply
  9. Note to self: buy the polarized filter. Game changer. Thanks for the awesome photography tips. I’ll take all of them I can. Also loved how you recommended taking four shots in different angles/compositions for the perfect shot.

    Reply
    • Yup, the filter is awesome. May not always come out of the bag but when it does, it’s a life-saver — and photo-changer.

      Reply
  10. Your photos are all so beautiful. I’ve been taking travel photos for years and there are so many that just didn’t turn out the way I expected. I’ve saved your post for our upcoming trip to the Caribbean. Hopefully I’ll get some stunning shots!

    Reply
  11. Our photos could use all the help they can get! However, I always try to balance my shots and frame the subject well. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! Taking photos digitally has been a mild lifesaver for folks like us.

    Reply
    • Indeed, the digital world has completely changed the photography game. I learned to shoot and received training in photojournalism using an Olympus OM1 … a great camera, but you never really knew what you got when conditions were tough, so you bracketed like crazy and shot a LOT of film.

      Reply
  12. I am always trying to learn new tips as a novice photographer. This was great. Especially the tip about patience, I too have packed up and then missing out on the final impact of a sun setting. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Patience is always key … and observation. Combined with what Therese dubs, “anticip-wait”– really learning to observe, wait and know when the best time for a shot might be.

      Reply

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