Landscape photography has the ability to take your viewers into another place without actually being there. Anybody can pick up a camera and take a photo of an interesting place, but it takes a careful and mindful photographer to take a landscape photo that is truly compelling. Most of the really impressive landscape photos that you will see have a few common elements. They have some type of foreground element, some type of framing element, and they all comply with the rule of thirds in some way.
In order to show the depth of a landscape it is very important to include some type of foreground element. Without something in the foreground, the viewer has no way to distinguish distances or sizes; everything looks more flat and closer to the camera. A foreground element adds a substantial amount of improvement to what would be a drab amateur photo. But when using foreground elements in landscape photos make sure you use a very narrow aperture (high f/stop) so the whole scene will be in focus.
Just about anything can be used as a foreground element but of course some things work better than others. For example, when I am taking landscape photos in the Napa Valley I always include some grape vines close to the camera leading off into the distance. That way, the viewer’s eye is drawn into the photo more effectively because the grape vines lead the viewer’s eyes deeper into the photo. The vines also perform the function of providing the viewer with some idea of the size of the Napa Valley because the vines in my photos go from being large when they are close to the camera to being tiny as they lead off into the distance.
Some photographers like to use foreground objects that are really more like subjects. One example of this would be a boat sitting on a long beach or a car staring down a long road. Other photographers like to use simpler foreground elements such as long grass with large fields in the background or a rusty railing with a city standing in the distance. Sometimes when foreground elements and background elements don’t seem to fit together the result can be even more compelling. A good example of this would be photos taken from Central Park in New York City with grass and trees in the foreground and massive corporate buildings in the background.
Framing is the tactic of using natural surroundings to add more meaning to your subject. It could be anything such as bushes, trees, a window, or even a doorway. A good example of this would be tree branches that occupy the top part of the frame pointing out at your landscape. I once saw a great photo of the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the photo was from a distance and it had tree branches covered in pink flowers in the foreground all pointing towards the Eiffel Tower that was off in the distance. Framing elements commonly either add more meaning to the subject by surrounding the subject or by simply pointing in the direction of the main subject.
In the process of doing this you need to be careful that you don’t only focus on what’s framing your subject. Make sure you focus on the main subject, and also it is a good idea to use a narrow aperture (high f/stop) to achieve a high depth-of-field. It also wouldn’t hurt if the part of the scene framing the subject was darker so make sure you take your light reading on the main subject such as in a shadow filled archway leading into a large courtyard.
The rule of thirds might seem overused and artistically unnecessary, but the photographers who hold true to the rule tend to create the nicest landscape photos. Since landscape photos are so broad they need some type of structure that the rule of thirds provides. The rule of thirds means that the frame can be divided into three horizontal sections and three vertical sections and therefore, where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect makes an ideal location for the more important parts of your picture. For landscape photographers, the divisions can also be very important in setting up a picture; they can for example, help you determine that only 1/3 of the photo should be foreground or horizon.
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