The 5 Commandments of Landscape Photography (Do These Or Fail)
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It is a major challenge to be prescriptive with art, right? Whenever I’m teaching workshops and I get questions like, is this the best focal length to use or do I have the right shutter speed? Or is my horizon at the right level? The answer is almost always, it depends because, you know, unless I know exactly what you want to accomplish, I can’t unequivocally say, well, you should do specifically this and point your camera at that specific rock at this exact focal link with this exact shutter speed. There are so many subjective elements to art and to photography that it’s really hard to say, this is the right answer. And this is the wrong answer. However, I can say that there are five things that every single landscape photo needs to do in order to be successful. And if you don’t do these five things, your photo isn’t going to work. So I’m going to tell you what those are, how to accomplish them right now.
Greetings my excellent friends, it’s Josh Cripps here. Now with all of the different types of photos out there, you may be wondering what five things the best ones could possibly have in common. But the truth is it’s not about this specific settings they use or the kind of post-processing or even the time of day that they were shot. Instead. It’s about how the photographers approach the scene and how the photos they create accomplish very specific goals. So let’s get into it.
The best photos, tell stories and landscape photography is no different. Even if that story in a landscape photo is as simple as well, I went to this place and it was really cool and beautiful. And the things in this photo show you why I think that, and as it implies, it can’t be just any story of a place. It has to be your story of a place, not what somebody else thinks is cool or what you think you should compose based on the latest outdoor photographer article you read, or what trends are popular on Instagram, extreme framing. But what you specifically notice about a place I want to know what you see. This is the number one goal. Your photo must accomplish. It needs to tell your story, have a place at the moment that you are pressing the shutter. Okay. So how the crap do you do that?
A good subject for a landscape photo. Honestly, it’s anything that catches your eye. So that could be anything that you find interesting or beautiful or engaging about the scene that you’re in, in a really easy test for. This is any time you catch yourself thinking, eh, that’s pretty cool. Well, then you have the potential for a good subject for your photograph. Now the big exception to this is light and clouds, and while they’re beautiful, they often aren’t distinctive enough to stand alone as the entirety of the story of your photo. Now, it’s also critical that your subject is something that you care about. And that’s just to say that the more your subject makes you feel an emotion, any emotion, really, whether it’s art or serenity or apprehension or joy, whatever it is, you just need to feel an emotion. The more that you feel that the more that you care about your subject, the more that you’re going to want to photograph it, you’re going to really engage with it and explore it and shoot it from all kinds of different angles until you really find out what makes that subject tick.
And the more that you do that, the more it’s going to draw your viewers in as well. So that’s why it’s important that you find something that you are interested in, something that you care about, something that makes you feel any emotion. Now, more than likely in any scene, there’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff that you’re drawn to. Of course. So what you need to do is just pick the most important two to four things, actual physical things in the scene, and then try to exclude everything else because a photo that contains everything that’s in a scene in front of you, it says a lot without actually saying anything. Instead, you should strive to show your viewer. What’s most important to you in any given scene. Now it’s okay to shoot many different photos to help tell a complete story of a place, but each individual photo should show. What’s so special. What’s most special to you about that particular moment, that particular scene. So that’s what you need to accomplish with your subject. You want to convey to your viewer. What’s most important to you in that particular moment, in that particular scene.
In order to be effective, the composition of your photo needs to show off the most interesting attributes of that subject of your photo. So if you’re looking at a mountain and you’re thinking, Holy crap, that thing is huge, but then you shoot an image like this with a super wide angle lens where the mountain is this tiny little pyramid in the background. Is that really telling the story? Is it really showing off the most compelling attributes of that subject or would a shot like this be more effective to demonstrate to your viewer what it is that you want to show off about mountain specifically how huge it is? You know, here’s another example. If you’ve already seen my video about story and composition and the way that they play together, basically these are two shots from Kings Canyon. And what I wanted to show off in this scene was the expansiveness of the sky.
And I could have shot a vertical like this, which is very engaging and it pulls the viewer in, but it feels very closed off. It doesn’t show that expansiveness of the scene, whereas the horizontal composition, which not only contains a broad swath of sky in the sky, but it also contains a broad swath of sky in the reflection. Basically, it’s giving you all this sky, it’s giving you the sense of endlessness, how this views in this space and go on forever. So that’s what I found interesting. That was the most compelling part of my subject. And that’s what I’m using my composition to convey in this photograph. So use your composition to show off the most interesting parts of your subject. All right. Number four, artistic camera technique.
And what I’m talking about here is basically your camera settings, the gear you use, and even things like timing, like when you press the shutter button now most photographers, when they hear camera technique or good camera technique, they’re thinking, okay, I gotta put my camera on a tripod and get a decent exposure, but good camera technique is about so much more than this because the truth is as an artist, what you are trying to achieve, what you’re striving for is to use your camera and your shooting technique in order to further show your viewer. What’s important about the scene that you’re photographing. So here I was photographing from the top of a Ridge line in Kings Canyon, national park, and I’d been hiking for quite some time under these fairly ominous skies and they kept threatening to drop a ton of rain. In fact, I could see the lightning, I could hear the thunder happening just over the Hill, essentially.
And I felt like at any minute, I’m going to get smacked by this storm and it’s going to be really uncomfortable. So I had this kind of impending sense of doom and drama. And so as I was photographing this scene, that’s exactly what I wanted to convey. Now, technically speaking, in terms of getting a good exposure, I could have shot the scene like this, and you can see the histogram here is really nicely brightly exposed. It’s good data. It’s good, blah, blah, blah, blurb. But does this tell that story? There’s a plane flying over and I’m also dancing cause my hands are cold. So I gotta get this video done and go home and get some tea.
All right. That’s probably good enough. So this light exposure, which is technically a proper, a good exposure, it’s really not telling that story of those emotions that I was feeling and the emotions that I want to convey in the image. Whereas this photo where I expose it more darkly or less brightly, it tells that story so much better. So here I am using my camera settings to very intentionally tell or further emphasize that story that I wanted to tell about my subject. So again, I’ve identified that my subject, which is the storm coming in, what was cool about it, or maybe what I should say I found most compelling is how it really gave me this sense of kind of impending doom and drama. That’s what I wanted to convey to my viewer. And I’m using my camera technique to do that by specifically exposing the exposure more darkly, it’s not just about exposure, histograms or shutter speed and things like that.
Camera technique can also be the way that you use your camera. Like when you press the shutter button. So here I’m photographing Lake Tipu in New Zealand. This is right in the town of Queenstown, the Queenstown gardens. It was a windy day. The wind was sweeping these waves up the Lake and they would come and they would crash on the shore here and send spray, shooting up into the air. And I really loved that. Interplay the energy of the water, hitting the rocks, the excitement of it. It really helped give a sense of the energy of the wind and what it was like to actually be there in the moment. So what’s critical about the creation of photos in a situation like that is when you press the shutter button, right? If I press the shutter button, when the waves are still you, the viewer, you’re not going to get a sense of what I was experiencing and the story that I want to tell in this photograph.
Instead, I’m waiting for the biggest possible wave to hit the rock. And I’m trying to press my Sutter at just the exact right moment to catch the maximum amount of splash and spray coming up into the air so that you really get a sense of what was happening. That wave hitting the rock, flying up. You’re seeing that you’re feeling the energy of what it was actually like to be there in the moment. So there’s another example of how you can use your camera technique to further emphasize and tell that story show. What’s most interesting about your subject to your viewers. All right, let’s get on to the last thing that you have to accomplish in order to have a successful landscape photograph. And that is use light. Don’t let it use you.
Even the light in your photograph needs to serve a purpose. And the truth is the craziest most Epic light. It’s not always the best light because just like composition and technique the light in your photo. What it has to do is enhance the story that you’re trying to tell. And so light is actually only good or to the extent that it helps you convey what you want to convey and with landscape photography, sometimes, maybe even oftentimes that story is really simple. It’s as simple as saying something like this was a really cool, unusual, beautiful place that I visited. And so if you shoot that kind of a location with some really cool, unusual, beautiful lights, well, it, that helps to tell that story. And in fact, that’s a really common story in landscape photography, and that’s fine, but it’s not the only story, right? Because sometimes the story is what it felt like to stumble across a field of wild flowers in the high Sierra.
And you want to share the joy and the happiness that you felt when you were walking through this landscape. And the loop in was blooming and bright purple in the perfume was wafting in the wind and you were just so overjoyed to be there. And if that’s what you want to convey to your viewer, that’s great. But say you decide to wait around until the afternoon thunderstorms pick up so you can get some of that really cool, dark dramatic, moody light now. Sure. Yeah, you could do that, but let me ask you this. Doesn’t that completely miss the point of the story that you’re trying to tell. In fact, maybe the best light for that particular story is right after sunrise, when there’s not a single cloud in the sky, when is completely clear. And that light blazing across the landscape creates these beautiful saturated uplifting colors.
So even though that light isn’t as traumatic, it doesn’t have that thunderstorm intensity. Isn’t that better light for the story that you’re trying to tell. So you always gotta be asking yourself when you’re photographing under different lighting conditions, what better conveys the things that you are seeing and feeling, and experiencing and what you want your viewers to understand as well. Now, the title slide for this little section about light here said, don’t let light use you. But really what I mean to say is don’t let your expectations for light or your hopes for light use you, uh, fantasizing about getting a certain kind of light is going to lead you down a dangerous path, dangerous. I say, this is a path where you start to set up shots that just don’t work because the light that’s present in the scene is telling a different story than the one that you’re trying to tell with your camera.
So take this scene from death Valley, for example, Nope, everybody wants the Epic sunset shot over the dunes. You know, I do too. I’m not immune to that, but if I go to this scene and I asked, what was I really drawn to in this particular scene in this moment? It wasn’t the big Vista and it wasn’t even this nice diagonal line here in the sand dune. What happened is I let my expectations and my hopes lure me into setting up this shot in a kind of fingers crossed desperation that the sky would blow up at sunset. But that’s exactly why this photo doesn’t work because I’m not present in this photo, not me personally, but the things that I actually wanted to convey aren’t in this photo, because what I was really drawn to here were the ripples and the ridges and the alternating light and shadow.
That’s where the real story was. That was the real interesting part for me. And that’s what the light in the scene was also, that’s the story it was trying to tell. And so when I turned my focus to just that, to really think about what was compelling in that moment, what I wanted my viewer to understand, and I let go of my expectations of what was supposed to happen at sunset that’s when I was able to create an actually successful photo. So there you have it guys, those are the five things that your landscape photos must accomplish. And regardless of the style, the kind of scene that you’re shooting or the light that you’re shooting in, if you achieve those five goals, then I guarantee you’re going to be shooting some awesome, successful personally expressive photos that you love that are beautiful and wonderful, and make your mom give you an a plus and slap it up on the refrigerator.
Well, I hope you guys enjoyed this video because I’m a big believer that learning the craft of landscape photography is going to help you a hundred times more than picking up the latest camera will. And I’ve actually got a free webinar where I talk more about my approach to photography and a craft. You can check the link down below I’ll, I’ll link it up there in the corner as well. If you enjoy this video, you’re going to really enjoy that free webinars as well. So definitely check it out.
This is Josh Cripps signing off here from the Eastern Sierra Nevada until next time have fun and happy shooting!
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