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I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods. Everything from wilderness backpacking to day hikes. Inevitably, I found myself wanting to take pictures that would capture the beauty of what I was seeing. The problem is that the photos never seemed to do justice to what I experienced first hand.

After looking at great landscape photos I would find myself thinking, why can’t I do that? You might think you need the very best equipment and lenses. I thought that myself at one time but here is what I’ve discovered. A great photo comes from good composition and proper lighting/exposure. If you will take the time to learn a few basic principles you can often capture landscape photos that will do you proud And the best news is you can do this with something as basic as an iPhone camera as was done with the photo above. To see a larger images, click on any of the photos in this post.

Here are my thoughts on lighting, exposure and composition. Concepts that will allow you to quickly start capturing landscape photos that you can be proud of.

Light

When I was growing up we had rather crude Kodak Instamatic film cameras. One of the first things you were taught was to make sure the sun was behind you whenever possible. This is NOT what you want when photographing a landscape. Ideally you want the light to come from the side but still slightly behind you. This will enhance the shadows in a way that creates texture and depth as opposed to a flat image when the light is directly behind you. In the photo below the light is coming from the sunrise to my right.

Exposure

One of the real challenges is that trees and foliage will photograph much darker than what the human eye sees. By the same token, sky and snow/ice will quickly overexpose and washout. So what can be done?

The first thing is to realize that a cloudy day can be ideal in many cases. Bright sunny days create lots of harsh shadows while washing out the areas that are in sunlight. Cloudy days create even lighting with none of the harsh shadows.

The sky at higher elevations is often an amazingly deep blue. It is one of the things that I look forward to when hiking. But how can you capture that without over and under exposing the rest of our photo? The only success I have had is to be ready to shoot at early sunrise or as the sun is setting. This is also the time when mountains will often turn shades of pink and orange. The photo below was taken at 6:30 am before the sun had reached full brightness.

On a full sized camera you would want to set the shutter speed and aperture (lens opening) to control the exposure. On a camera phone or pocket camera this is not practical. So here is what you can do. slowly tilt the camera up and down until you have the right amount of exposure on the screen. Now press the shutter part way down. On almost all pocket cameras this will lock the exposure (as well as focus) and you can now frame the picture and shoot.

On an iPhone it is easier. Just tap the screen the screen and the exposure will adjust for that area you touched. So, if the mountain is washing out tap on it and it will readjust the exposure. It is a bit of a trial and error process because other areas my become to bright or dark. Another good reason to get there early or late in the day when the sun is not as bright.

Composition

I focus on two types of compositions. The first is useful for capturing the grand scale and majesty of large landscapes. The second is useful for creating a sense of movement and discovery.

Capturing majestic views – One of the first things budding photographers are taught is the “rule of thirds.” The idea is that there is a pleasing balance to a photograph when the natural subject is located along one of these lines or intersections. Here is how it looks. The red dots are the natural locations for the subject.

Here it is applied to a practical example.

I have found this to be a great starting place when composing. Just know it is not absolute. Feel free to adjust slightly to what looks pleasing to you. Or better yet take several slight variations. To learn more about this you can check out this online lesson.

Foreground, mid-ground & background – It is commonly taught that adding a foreground object will add interest and this is true. But the most important lesson I learned from a book written by John Shaw was the importance of adding a mid-ground subject. I have discovered this can really increase the depth and scale of majestic scenes. Here is an example of foreground and background.

Compare the above, to the photo below that has a foreground, mid-ground and then the mountain the background. It just does a better job of capturing the depth and size of the subject.

Creating Movement – When it comes to wildflowers, streams and paths you can often ignore, or at least downplay, the rule of thirds. You do this by composing a picture that leads the viewers eye through the picture in a natural way. Streams and paths are perfect for this type of photograph. They are fun because they viewer is led to discover different parts of the landscape as their eye traces a path. It allows you to create a sense of movement. Curved lines are more pleasing than straight lines. A lazy-S shape can work even better. Here are three examples.  In the first one the large rock leads the eye up to the trail and then down to the hiker.

While the exposure is not great, I like the way the trail in this photo leads the eye to a surprise up ahead.

This third one is just bright and colorful. The rail frames the photo and also leads the eye through the photo.

Most important, learn from others. Now that you know the basic concepts, examine other photos that you think are great. Try to figure out what makes it so pleasing to look at. Does it capture the majesty of a mountain? How does it do it? Does it cause you to feel relaxed? Why is that? In this way you will continue to improve. And remember, the best camera is the one you have with you. This last picture was taken with a two-megapixel pocket camera.


Do you have a tip to share?  I would like to hear it.  Or if you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask.