Since I recently launched my website, I’ve been getting questions from people on how to better capture what they see, without having any interest in fancy cameras or complicated travel photography techniques. This post aims to provide 101 basic foundations for taking pictures that you’ll be proud of… regardless of the material you use (phone or camera), starting with landscape photography as a very common field.
If you’re interested in more practical photography tips, please give feedback and I’ll create a series of posts on this subject over time.
No camera can come close to the eye’s performance
Has it ever happened to you that you shot an amazing place or moment, with unbelievable colors, but when looking at the image you’ve taken, you’re kind of disappointed that the wonder you see was not really captured fairly?
The human eye can’t be beaten by any camera technology, and this statement will remain true for a long time, despite the high pace of technology innovation. The eyes work with the brain to create the images you perceive. The eye is a subjective device, constantly readjusting color balance, light, and focus. The camera sensor, inversely, is a “dump” signal recording stuff, with no emotional filter and with a uniform sensitivity to light, regardless of how much fancy measurement and software the camera offers. The eyes are the ultimate camera, and some of them are even very beautiful, like this bride in Sri Lanka. I know, not a lot to do with the topic, but I like her eyes, so…
There are myriads of articles on photography techniques and fancy material. Some of these posts are really helpful, but often a bit complicated and focused on the small minority of people using (well, or not) a fancy camera.
As most people are just keen to keep great memories from a trip or a moment and use a phone camera or a small point-and-shoot camera, I decided to start there for tips.
Beyond the fact that these small cameras are as good as professional cameras 15 years ago, equipment is only one of the ingredients of capturing great images – a clear plus, but not a must. This statement is coming from a guy who carries 30 pounds of expensive toys around the globe for shooting, so I’m not suggesting that professional camera equipment is not a big plus, I’m just saying that regardless of the material, the critical photography ingredients of success are the same and pretty simple:
- Prepare your trip and organize yourself to be at the right place at the right time.
- Learn how to see what’s around you and focus on perspective and composition.
- Let Mother Nature do the magic stuff and adapt to capture the light it gives you that day.
And of course, the more you study and practice, the luckier you will get. So let’s start on the learning piece, hoping that you’ll get engaged to practice this… and surprise yourself with the results you’ll get.
5 basic tips about landscape photography, independently from cameras and techniques
Obviously, these are basic guidelines rather than rules and there will be cases where doing exactly the opposite will give you a marvelous image and effect. However, following and practicing these will with no doubt provide you with a step-change on what your pictures look like, with a phone or a camera… Yes, I mean from good to great in your case, as you’re of course fantastic already.
Nature will make your shots beautiful… during golden hour
When possible, shoot during the golden and magic hours, ideally 90mins before and after sunrise and sunset. Without being so “purist”, shots taken the first part of the morning or late afternoon will look much better with no extra skills, as opposed to harsh mid-day light that makes everything look flat and not-so-great. So, plan your trips to be in the nicest places in the morning or evening for the best light and results!
This image is just an example of waiting peacefully for the sun to come up at sunrise and letting Mother Nature do the hard work, painting the landscape with amazing, vivid colors in Arch Rock in the Valley of Fire, near Las Vegas. Go and have a look at the gallery, as nature was then generous enough to bring some rainbows as well, My skill was mainly to be in the right place at the right time!
Check where the sun will be, that’s super easy… and predictable
Except for sunset and specific effects, most of the time the simple rule is to get the sun beside you, not in front of your camera. The way the camera sensors works will ensure that the landscape or monument you are shooting shows up with greater colors and a much more vivid sky. There are many free apps (like https://www.suncalc.org) that show on your iPhone or desktop the direction of the sun anytime and anywhere on Earth, so if you plan to visit a castle or whatever, why not spend a minute ahead to check the right time to go? The beautiful Pena Palace in Portugal, for example (positioned on the Suncalc map above, as well), does not look as colorful a few hours earlier or later when the sun is not angled correctly, as it is on my image below. Again, the sun is doing your job for you…
Foreground matters… and changing perspective, as well
Look around you for something to make the image less like a “boring postcard”, trying to add to the main subject something in front, when relevant. Just to illustrate, these love padlocks near the famous Charles Bridge in Prague Czech Republic give something a bit different than the “standard” shoot of the bridge.
Again, look around and learn to get different perspectives beyond the obvious photo. You picture a crowd of tourists getting off the bus, taking the photo, and getting back up in the bus 20 seconds after? Don’t do that, please…
As a secret (and free) tip, try to get your camera with an angle closer to the ground. Often, this can create magic and new shooting perspectives, like the Bolshoi Theatre lit up with an amazing puddle reflection, for example, from stormwater on the pavement in Moscow, Russia.
The rule of thirds, used by painters for centuries, applies to photography, as well…
Don’t be literal on this (you can go against the “rule” anytime it is relevant), but a good practice is to divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, and place the key elements of your image either along these lines or at the junctions of them for more interesting and dynamic arrangements.
It works for landscape, as well as for portrait and animals, where you really want to leave a two-thirds “space” in the direction the subject is looking, or the animal is moving, like for this Andean flamingo flying above the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Try both (centered and with the rule of thirds) with your own subject and judge what an amazing difference it makes…
This also means that oftentimes, for landscape photography, you may place the horizon on the first third up or down, rather than in the middle (what most people do). Depending on if the story is in the sky or under it, that is likely going to make your picture more powerful. And again, look for foreground and/or get closer to the floor, like in the example below in the turquoise lagoon of the Rangiroa atoll, Tuamotus archipelago in French Polynesia (beautiful place, go and look for more on the site through the link!).
Strangers on images are not always the enemy
I have to confess that I’m one of those photographers that hate people – that are not part of the subject – to be on my pictures. Do you know the type, the one that spends 10 minutes taking a selfie while others wait for them to get out of the way? Sometimes, however, strangers can give a perspective and feel of size for your main subject. Notice the tiny people hiking on the famous Perito Moreno blue-ice glacier. They give perspective on the size of this significant ice cube in Patagonia, Argentina.
So I hope these little tips are helpful and convinced you to try them! Remember that the more you practice, the luckier you will get with your pictures.
Please engage and share images! If you’re interested in more, please give feedback and I’ll create a series of posts with more photography tips and more techniques over time!