By Michael Lanza
Do you wonder how some people come back from national parks and other outdoor trips with fantastic photos? Would you like to take the kind of pictures that make people ooh and aah? It may not be as complicated as you think. The following tips on outdoor and landscape photography, which I’ve learned from studying photography and over three decades of shooting the finest scenery in America and the world, will help you take home better photos whether you’re a beginner or an experienced photographer.
Sure, equipment matters, and the more time you spend shooting and learning how to hone your skills, the better your photos will be. Shooting raw files—which record more data for each photo than jpegs and can be edited more extensively—and learning how to use a high-end editing program like Adobe Lightroom also greatly improves photo quality.
But the best camera gear and editing software cannot create a great photograph. That still requires skill—beginning with understanding some fundamental rules of composing images.
I’ve assembled here what I consider the 12 simplest and most effective tips for taking better pictures, especially landscape photos. I’ve recently updated this story to add two bonus tips—so it actually includes 14 actionable, easy-to-follow tips for improving your outdoor photography. Follow them and your family and friends will start asking to see your trip slide shows. If you have comments or questions on my tips or your own to share, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
1. Look for Dramatic Light
We were on a family vacation in Yellowstone National Park, and after doing the sit-and-wait with the kids—and several hundred other tourists—for Old Faithful to erupt, I wanted to stop at Midway Geyser Basin. I had done the walk through Midway before, and thought that then—in late afternoon, with dappled, low-angle light coming through scudding clouds—would be a perfect time to shoot Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, the wildly multi-colored and aptly named Grand Prismatic Spring.
The timing could not have been more perfect. The light accentuated the contrast between the dark hills in the background; the steam rising from the water, brightened by low-angle sunlight slashing through it; the deeply blue sky; and the incredibly rich, kaleidoscopic colors of Grand Prismatic, whose waters also reflected their surroundings perfectly in that light. In about 30 minutes of shooting, I came away with even more than the 14 keeper images in the gallery above—which for a serious photographer is a major haul.
The lesson: Dramatic light is what makes a landscape photo pop. Know your location and think about the best time of day and even the best season to shoot it to capture it in strong light.
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2. Think About Your Foreground
Photos are two-dimensional, and if you just shoot a row of distant mountains, the photo will look flat. Shooting in dappled sunlight (described in tip no. 1) helps make a photo look more three-dimensional.
But you can convey a sense of depth—of the three-dimensional appearance of the landscape—by shooting with a wide-angle lens and composing your photo with a person or object in the foreground, as I did in this shot of my son in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains and the lead photo at the top of this story of a beaver dam in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Position the camera close to, say, a big rock, a lakeshore, or a wildflower and frame the image so that there’s scenery in the middle distance (maybe a lake or forest) and far away (the mountains). Observe closely and you will notice many photos at The Big Outside and elsewhere that employ this basic technique.
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3. Think About Your Background
The background may not be your primary subject, but it can either make your subject more prominent or swallow it.
For instance, if the subject is a person or people in the middle distance who look small against a scenic backdrop (see tip no. 5)—as with the photo above from a peak named Blahnukur in Iceland—position the camera (yourself) relative to your subject so that there’s a bright backdrop behind the person, like a sky or lake waters or light-colored rock. A person who’s fairly small in the image would get lost against a dark backdrop like forest—unless that person is wearing brightly colored clothing (another trick for making the subject stand out against the background).
Conversely, if your subject is very bright—like a wildflower spotlighted in a shaft of sunlight, such as these geraniums (at right) in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park—position yourself to shoot so that there’s dark shadow behind the flower, to make it stand out better.
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4. Follow the Rule of Thirds
Beginner photographers commonly place the subject smack in the middle of the photo (and, too often, they cut off a person’s feet—a no-no). Compose photos following the rule of thirds: Mentally divide your image into thirds along the longer edge, i.e., when shooting a horizontal picture, the imaginary lines dividing the photo into thirds run vertically. Place your subject—person, bunch of wildflowers, animal, whatever—in the right or left third of the frame (facing into rather than out of the picture, as with the photo above from Capitol Reef National Park).
For the same reason, do not compose a photo with the land-sky horizon cutting straight through the middle of it; give the sky one-third of the picture or place the horizon in the lower third of the photo and let a dramatic sky dominate the image.
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5. Put a Person in There for Scale
You’ve seen many examples of this and probably done it yourself: Place a person or people far enough from the camera to make them appear small in order to convey a sense of the landscape’s vastness, as I did in the photo above from the Grand Canyon. Magazines use photos like this frequently because they know that readers identify with the person in the photo—the “I want to be there” effect.
The trick to doing this effectively is to make sure the tiny person remains large enough and visible against the background (tip no. 3) so as not to disappear, and to remember the Rule of Thirds (tip no. 4). Having just one person in the picture also introduces a powerful feeling of solitude that amplifies the sense of vastness.
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