One of the most common questions I’m asked is about my camera gear, followed by what are my recommendations for cameras, followed by what are my camera settings on a particular picture.  Usually I preface my answer by saying I’m not using anything special, because I’m not.  I have a decent full frame camera, not even close to being one of the top performers in the market, and if I weren’t printing pictures as large as 4 or 5 feet wide, most of it’s power would be lost on me.  If my goal were to create nice pictures for Instagram, I would be just as well off with a modest point and shoot camera or even my cell phone.  Additionally, knowing my camera settings really won’t help much because they only worked for me in that specific scenario.

You should never spend huge sums of money on a camera unless you know why you need it.  With that in mind, I wanted to write about how you can instantly improve your landscape photography using any camera you have on hand!  I’ve laid out 4 key points that helped me become a better landscape photographer, but I believe this advice can apply to all forms of photography.  Here they are!

1. Rule of Thirds

The easiest thing you can do to elevate your photography immediately is to simply start framing your subjects differently.  While our natural inclination might be to put things right in the middle of the frame, this doesn’t necessarily create a naturally pleasing image.  Framing a scene using the rule of thirds creates more visual interest and helps guide the viewer through the picture, rather than locking them in the center.

To do this, divide the frame up vertically and horizontally into thirds by imagining lines running through the picture in a grid pattern.  Camera’s, including cell phones, usually have the option for displaying this grid on screen, which is helpful.

Dolly Sods Morning 2
Rule of thirds illustration

This creates 4 areas where the lines intersect.  Now, when framing the scene place your subject, or subjects, in the cross-hairs of the intersecting lines.  The lines also create a nice guide to follow where you can put leading lines.  I like to stack my landscape scenes with foreground in the lower third, mid-ground in the middle and the horizon line can often follow the top third line.  This helps to show depth and lead the viewer through the landscape.  Don’t just step to the very edge of an overlook and shoot, include some of that foreground!  Placing the camera at a higher vantage point will reveal more foreground, useful when the foreground is more interesting than the sky.  While setting the camera lower to the ground will do the opposite, useful for showing off a big dramatic sky!

Dolly Sods Morning 2
This scene makes solid use of the rule of thirds, while taking advantage of lines that guide the eye through the scene.  The lower left cross-hair intersects the end of the rock protruding from the foreground and continues up to the flagged pine, which is the subject.  The rock path continues up the middle and to the right, roughly following the lower third lines.  Meanwhile, the horizon line follows the upper third line.
Rule of thirds Calhoun.jpg
Here, I wanted the small barn to be the subject, so I placed it in the intersecting lines of the lower left section.  This time the horizon line follows the lower third and the upper line traces the Milky Way.
Rule of thirds NRG.jpg
The rule of thirds can be applied to vertical compositions as well!  Here the subject is the distant bridge in the upper right.  The gap between the rhododendron is traced by the vertical line on the right edge, while the left vertical line follows the blooms and the intersecting lines are (roughly) over clusters of flowers.

I love using the rule of thirds as the dominant way for framing the majority of my compositions.  Even though the rule is a very simple and fundamental concept in art and photography, it just works and I rarely feel the need to deviate from it.  The rule of thirds isn’t the only “rule” of composition and by no means is the “best” rule for all situations, all of this being completely subjective anyway.  However, this simple rule can dramatically increase the visual interest of a photo and provides a nice, easy guide toward framing a scene.

 

2. Right time right place

Have you ever wondered why some photographers seem to have portfolio’s of images filled only with dramatic scenes and great light?  They’re not just lucky.  They know when and where to be.  The best light occurs during what photographers refer to as “the golden hour.”  The golden hour is roughly an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset when the sun is low in the sky.  The light of a low sun has more atmosphere to travel through, therefore, the light is softer, warmer in hue.  The shadows cast by the low hanging sun can add more dimension to objects.  Of course, sunsets and sunrises are the catalysts for those dramatic, colorful skies.  Mornings are particularly good for shooting because there tends to be more moisture in the air, which can add an even more ethereal look to a scene.  Like the rule of thirds, shooting during golden hour isn’t something that should always be followed, but there’s a reason we are obsessively chasing the light around those times!

There’s no way to predict how conditions are going to be.  Generally, bad weather produces some of the best conditions for photography, as long as it’s not solid overcast and rainy.  If you’re unsure, head out anyway because being there is the most important factor.  I could do better by following my own advice here!

Williams River Overlook - Marlinton, West Virginia.jpg
The morning light provided not only the fog in the distance, but the light cast from the left side hits the lone pine tree in the foreground and the fog on the mountain side.
Drama and Beauty - Edmond, West Virginia.jpg
The clearing clouds after a storm produced these dramatic colors at sunset!
Nelson Sods Sunset - Circleville, West Virginia.jpg
Pointing the camera directly at the sun isn’t always ideal.  Sometimes it’s nice to take advantage of the warm light and shadows painting the landscape by observing at different angles how the sun is hitting it, adding interest to a scene that may not be as interesting under uniform light.

 

3. Quality over Quantity

Photographs are not as precious as they once were.  High capacity memory cards and cell phones ushered in by the digital era have made it all too easy to saturate our collection of pictures.  As a result, photographs are, in some ways, losing significance.

Ansel Adams once famously said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”  Coming up with more than a dozen or so quality photos, no doubt, would have been challenging in Ansel’s day.  Today, the world is more accessible, gear is more portable and we have more tools at our disposal than at any point in history to aid in churning out lots of significant photographs.  Add to that the pressures of social media and algorithms that demand we constantly produce new content in order to stay relevant and keep eyes on our work.

Be that as it may, the spirit of the quote should remain the same.  If I choose to post 5 versions of the same sunset at different points in time, rather than keeping one solid photo from the sequence, the whole event will lose significance.  Similarly, when we have witnessed a lackluster sunset, it can be tempting to try to salvage something from the evening, especially if we’ve worked so hard to be there.  As difficult as it may be, sometimes its best to exercise restraint and let those photos go, or else risk diluting our work.  In the worst case, it’s just another excuse to get out there again.

4. Quantity when Shooting

This is going to sound like it directly contradicts the previous point, but we can and should use technology to our advantage.  You CAN take 100 or 1000 photos in one outing, just pick a few good ones to keep.  It’s not unusual for me to take well over 100 photos in a day and only keep a couple.

There are photographers who extol the virtues of taking a limited number of pictures, waiting until the moment is just right to hit that shutter as if they are working with a limited number of film exposures.  Who is to determine when that “right” moment is?  In the days of film, the right moment was the moment that was captured because, of course the exposure they came back with wasn’t the “wrong” one.

I’ll use a sunset as an example again because it is a dynamic event.  There are lots of things happening during the course of a sunset as it unfolds from an hour before sunset, until an hour or later into twilight.  With the light and moods constantly changing, it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen next.  Sometimes the light will hit early on and never return.  Other times, it just keeps getting better as it progresses.  You’re arbitrarily limiting yourself if you’re choosing not capture everything throughout it’s course. Experiment with angles, try different lenses, fill up those memory cards,  and then choose the right moments when you get home.  Ignore anyone who may look down on that.

Photography is a process of discovery and the only way to discovery is through exploration.

IMGP5720
I took several single shots and panoramas during this sunset, any one would make a solid keeper.  However, taking several allows me to choose my favorite moment and only one of these would go in my portfolio and social media.

One thought

  1. Thank you for these great recommendations, Jesse. Apart from being an incredible photographer, you’re also a gifted teacher.

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