The inconvenient truth – how to take great landscape photographs.

It’s a bit of a cliche for people on the internet to ask whether getting the latest and greatest camera or lens will make their photographs better. When I’m showing my pictures at exhibitions or fairs I usually get several people asking me what camera and lens I use.

When I tell people the real secrets to taking good pictures they don’t seem so interested. I think they really want me to tell them to buy a new Nikon lens or Canon body. The real secrets are much simpler and cheaper but also much less convenient. To get great landscape shots you need four things.

Be in the right place

Many people will tell you to develop your own personal vision in photography. I eventually realised the kinds of photo I wanted to take and then realised that those photos, of mountains and seascapes, weren’t to be found just anywhere. No wonder I was taking uninspired photos, I just wasn’t in the right place. I now focus my efforts on mountain and seaside areas, where the subjects I want can be found. I spend time with maps looking for locations that will give me what I want. I look at contour lines, topographic features, sunset angles, to find likely locations. I still take a camera with me when I go on local walks but I know I’m not likely to get anything. Occasionally I’m surprised and get a good shot but it’s usually an outlier, a shot that won’t make it into a portfolio because it doesn’t fit my style.

Of course you can just take shots of wherever you happen to find yourself but when I’ve done that I find I end up with a mish-mash of shots with no coherent style or story.

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Right place, wrong time. This spectacle would look better in autumn, and at sunset.

Be there in the right season

Summer is my least favourite season. Everything is green and lush, almost monochrome in it’s greenness. No good for me. It doesn’t stop me going out, but I pretty much only get good shots at sunset and sunrise when the colour comes from the first or last rays of the sun.

My favourite seasons are autumn and winter. Autumn has the glorious browns, reds and yellows of the turning foliage, mists and dews. Winter has shapely naked trees and snow on the mountains. All of this makes for colourful eye-catching landscape photographs. The same place can look spectacular in autumn and just plain boring in summer.

Foel Goch from Ogwen
Great view, love the snow, but would prefer more clouds and a sunset.

Be there at the right time of day

I can’t take good landscape photographs in the early afternoon in summer. The light is awful. Sometimes I’m out in the daytime on a glorious day of cloudless blue skies and endless sun and people will see me with my camera and say “Wonderful light”. They’re thinking “lovely and sunny” and I’m thinking “horrible colour, harsh contrast, boring”.

In the months of long days when the weather is good you really need to be there at sunrise or sunset or both. You’ll find the scene transformed from ordinary to extra-ordinary. Over the course of an hour, from just before the sun appears above the horizon in the morning, you can find the colours changing from purple, to mauve, through red, pink, orange and yellow and every shot you take will be different as the light changes until eventually the light becomes flat and boring and just plain sunny and you can thankfully stop working and go for a good breakfast.

The same is not true when the weather is bad and the sky is overcast. Then it doesn’t matter what time of day it is but you need to pick your location and subject to match. On such days I go to the woods, especially in autumn when an overcast sky and dampness will bring out the full colour of the foliage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
What happens when the sun dips below a gap at the edge of a solid overcast just before it sets below the horizon. This effect lasted about five minutes.

Be there in the right weather

A cloudless blue sky isn’t much help to you. Clouds add colour and can help your composition flow. Stormy or showery weather can make for spectacular scenes as the sun breaks through an inky black blanket. Mountains look more beautiful in snow and everything looks fantastic in ice and frost.

This shot was taken just yesterday. I’d planned everything and it was all perfect and promised so much. I knew the weather was changeable and if it had co-operated it would have been spectacular but then solid clouds came over and it just didn’t happen. I was right to be there at that time, it was the right place to be, it just didn’t happen. Next time it might pay off.

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This promised so much but the clouds came in and the sunset just didn’t happen. C’est la vie!

You need to focus on the locations that fit your personal vision, and you need to be there when the season and the time of day and the weather come together in that fortuitous melding that only happens once every so often. I go out about once a week through the year on average on photography trips. I reckon one trip in three has a good mix of place, season, and weather and perhaps one trip in five is great. You make your own luck in this game. The more you get out there, the better the chances that you’ll be there when the picture is happening.

If you’re there when the picture happens then any modern camera and lens you happen to have will take a great shot.

Red Screes Sunrise
When it all comes together. In the right place at the right time, on top of a mountain at five a.m.

Oh, one more thing…

Of course, there’s also a fifth thing you need – talent. I wish I could order some of this on-line from Amazon, along with that new f2.0 lens I want that’s really going to make my pictures pop! Where’s my credit card…?

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