For many people, the word “landscape” typically conjures up images of snow-capped mountains, mighty rivers, and flower-covered meadows awash in the light of golden sunsets. But what if these photo utopias are beyond the bounds of a reasonable driving distance? What if your choices of places to photograph is limited to your immediate neighborhood or town? Are you skunked when it comes to landscape photography? The answer is, “No, not at all.”
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021
Let’s start by defining our goal. A random Google check for a definition of the word “landscape” brings up the following:
- All of the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal (Oxford Languages)
- A picture representing a view of natural inland scenery (Merriam Webster)
- The visible features of an area of land, its landforms, and how they integrate with natural or manmade features (Wikipedia)
Given that criteria, landscapes worth photographing can be found pretty much anywhere regardless of how close or far you live from the nearest national park. The truth is, once you walk out your door, you are looking at landscapes. “Seeing” these landscapes involves setting your mind’s eye on your surroundings by taking note of how the varying forms, shapes, and shadows around you fall into place, and how these visual elements can be composed in a way that causes the viewer of your photograph to pause and take a closer look.
A majority of the photographs that accompany this article were taken within an hour’s drive of my home, and many were taken within walking distance. Others were taken while strolling around (pre-pandemic) midtown Manhattan during lunch break, and a few were taken on journeys much farther from my home. The bottom line is that regardless of where you live or work, you are surrounded by landscapes. It’s just a matter of seeing them.
What’s the Difference between a Landscape and a Cityscape?
A cityscape is essentially a landscape populated with buildings instead of mountains, trees, and streams. Aesthetically, one should approach photographing urban street scenes and natural land formations with equal visual value systems. The workflow is the same, as are time of day and weather considerations. The major difference is that when shooting in the city you have to watch out for taxis, whereas when photographing in the wilderness you have to watch out for bears.
What’s Better for Landscape Photography: Black and White or Color?
Neither. Though color is definitely a factor when finding and composing photographs, a good photograph is good regardless of whether it’s been captured in color or monochrome. It’s all a matter of personal aesthetics and preferences. (And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!)
What Are the Best Lenses for Landscapes and Cityscapes?
If you are standing at the base of the Rocky Mountains and want to get the entire mountain range in the frame, you’ll want a wide-angle lens, for your SLR or mirrorless camera, and the wider the better. Conversely, if you are driving across the Great Plains and you want to photograph the Rockies just as they appear on the distant horizon, you will want a longer telephoto lens for your SLR or mirrorless camera.
The honest answer is you use whichever lens is best for capturing the photograph you are previsualizing. And if you only have one lens, you use it and make it work.
Are wider-angle lenses preferable to normal or longer focal length telephoto lenses? Depending on the field of view of the scene you are photographing and how far you can back away from the scene and still get everything within the frame lines are the biggest determining factors. Ideally, you want to be able to back up as far as you want, which gives you more shooting options, but this is seldom an option, especially when shooting in heavily trafficked areas.
By nature, most people associate wider-angle lenses with landscape photography, me included. I wouldn’t dream of heading out to shoot landscapes without at least one wide- or ultra-wide-angle lens in my bag. But the fact is landscape photographs can be captured equally well using wide-angle, normal, and telephoto lenses. It’s just a matter of positioning your camera in a spot that enables you to capture the scene in a tight, well-composed, and visually interesting manner.
Always Consider Alternative Camera Angles and Focal Length Choices
The following are a group of pictures I captured at sunrise along a back road about a half-hour’s drive from my home. The morning mist was burning off fast when I noticed the bands of sunlight filtering through a long wood fence that was paralleled by a stately row of trees. I quickly stopped, mounted my camera with a 24-90mm zoom lens on a tripod, and went to work.
In the time it took for the last of the morning mist to burn off (4-5 minutes tops), I managed to capture nine of what I would consider keepers.” As for which combination of focal length and camera position works best, that’s all a matter of opinion. I will go as far as saying one of the photographs in the above series hangs in my dining room.
Guiding the Viewer’s Eye Using Visual Anchors, Strong Foregrounds, and Diagonal Lines
When composing a landscape (or any well-composed photograph for that matter), it’s extremely important to include a visual anchor that grabs and launches the eye through the photograph. Without this anchor, the viewer’s attention flounders and quickly moves on. The following are examples of how the placement of the various elements within a photograph’s frame lines can be used to create stronger visual impact.
Converging Lines and Vanishing Points
Vanishing points are one of the most valuable visual tools when it comes to landscape photography. The two photographs below were taken on a walk along a fog-draped country road. In each of the photographs, the viewer’s eye is automatically guided through the landscape by the roadway and the fences that parallel the road, each of which perceptually comes together in the distance. The perception of depth and space are further suggested by the mist that gradually envelopes the receding trees.
Converging lines and vanishing points can be readily incorporated as bold design elements when shooting landscapes.
Using the Sun and Shadows as Design Elements
Positive and negative space, that is, light and shadow, are the basis of drawing, painting, and other forms of visual art and communication, including photography. The following cityscapes and landscapes illustrate how the sun and its resulting shadows can be used in the foreground or elsewhere in the photograph as primary design elements.
Architecture and Landscape Photography
Architecture and landscape photography have been interrelated since the earliest days of photography. Buildings appeared in Joseph Niépce’s very first photograph. Buildings also appeared in the earliest work of Louis Daguerre, as well as in the oldest existing photograph of Manhattan (1848).
The challenge for a landscape photographer is to make sense of it all by taking photographs that capture the interaction between the various forms and light within the scene.
Landscapes & Architecture
With the exception of autumn leaves, nothing changes a landscape more than a blanket of snow. This is especially true in wooded areas, which typically resemble little more than chaotic tangles of earth-tone branches once winter sets in. Snow changes things by covering the monochromatic detritus that litters the forest floor, making it easier to find favorable compositions above the ground cover.
Seascapes and Waterscapes
Seascapes and waterscapes give you an opportunity to connect land, sky, and water in any number of visual combinations. And because of the changing physical nature of each of these entities, the results you can get are essentially infinite.
When composing seascapes, always take advantage of cloud formations and other notable topographic or atmospheric features within the scene. Polarizing filters can add a great measure of visual impact by making clouds seemingly “pop” from the sky while eliminating glare from water surfaces.
Using Reflections as Visual Elements
Mirrors, windows, and the surface of lakes, streams, and even puddles can add a deeper sense of depth and complexity to landscapes and cityscapes.
And Before You Go to Bed, Make Sure You Go Out and Take a Few Nighttime Landscapes
Just because the sun went down doesn’t mean the day is over. As a wise man supposedly once said “Landscapes happen 24/7”, to which I always add “…and don’t forget your tripod!” The ambient daylight of dusk—aka, the “magic hour” or the “blue hour,” is an ideal time to blend the subtle tones of the evening hours with any ambient streetlight. And if there’s any neon in the scene, so much the better!
A Few Additional Tips for Capturing Sharp, Detailed Landscapes
Tripods and Camera Supports
Though not necessarily a big concern when it comes to street photography, straight horizon lines are imperative when it comes to landscape photography. When photographing cityscapes, it’s important to maintain a level camera to avoid keystone distortions, in which the building appears to be falling backward. Tripods and camera supports can help.
Wide-Angle and Tilt-Shift Lenses
Wide-angle and tilt-shift lenses for SLR or mirrorless cameras are highly recommended for photographing architecture. If a tilt-shift lens isn’t available, any keystone distortions caused by aiming your camera upward can be corrected post capture in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Polarizing filters darken skies, which in turn accentuates any clouds that might be floating by. Polarizers also eliminate reflections from the surface of water, glass, and other polished surfaces, which results in brighter, more saturated colors.
Neutral Density (ND) Filters
ND filters can be used for extending shutter speed times, which results in blurring of moving water. ND filters can also be used to blur the movement of pedestrians in urban areas when photographing in crowded environs. Graduated ND filters are useful for compensating for exposure differences between the upper and lower (or left and right) portions of the frame.
If your camera or tripod lack leveling devices, a simple Lucite bubble level is enough to keep your horizon lines straight and level.
Do you have any thoughts or tips about landscape photography? If so, tell us about them in the Comments section, below.