Landscape Photography

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Lesson 1: What Makes a Good Landscape Photograph

What makes a good landscape photograph? As a photographer, that should be a question you think about often, with or without camera in hand. There is no single answer, and there are probably as many theories on the topic as there are photographers. As with any art form, appreciation for landscape photography is subjective-not everyone will like the same image. I heard one photographer speak at a conference who described the Florida landscape as “ugly” and worthy only of closeup or wildlife photography. Yet I work in the Florida landscape every day and find it an endless source of fascination and beauty.

Hillsborough River at sunrise, Hillsborough River State Park, FL:

The wild Florida landscape is subtle, but never ugly. Rising mist, limestone boulders, an ancient cypress – there is a mystical element in this photo that makes this my best – selling fine art print.

Obviously, every good photograph contains certain elements that elevate it above mediocrity. Proper exposure; attention to form, texture, line, or some other graphic foundation; and quality of light spring to mind immediately. But much of what makes a good landscape photograph, or perhaps in this case we should say “great” landscape photograph, is intangible. Something in the photograph strikes us to the core, makes us gasp, makes us cry. Maybe it’s a dramatic sky over a salt marsh or river smoke rising from a stretch of rapids or the play of shadows and light in a slickrock canyon. Maybe it’s the raw force of nature that catches and holds us. Maybe it’s a magical subtlety.

A good landscape photo is technically accurate and generally pleasing. A good landscape photo typically doesn’t wind up in the waste can. It may even sell well.

A great landscape photo is one that you never tire of seeing, one that years later you can look at and still feel its power. Sometimes great landscape photos just happen; you know, f/8 and be there. But typically a great photograph comes about when a photographer has connected with a landscape, visualized an image in his or her mind, chosen an angle of view and lens and film that will best convey that inner vision, and then waited for the right moment. Sometimes the wait may take years and several trips. Other times the vision is realized the first time. With luck and good business sense, the image will be a best seller. Sometimes it won’t. Again, appreciation is subjective. But widely recognized “great” images eventually make a “great” photographer.

Salt marsh and approaching storm near Cedar Key, FL:

Strong sidelight, a forbidding sky, lots of texture and pattern in the foreground with an S – curve leading through the center of the frame make this a solid landscape photograph.

These lessons will assume you know the basics of determining exposure through a TTL meter or hand-held meter and understand how shutter speed, aperture, film speed, and the amount of available light affect how you determine exposure. My intent is to help you create more dramatic, aesthetically composed landscape photographs using natural light.

I can help you improve your technique, how you see the world, but nothing I can tell you will make your photos great. Greatness comes from within you, from your inner vision and the impressions you form from your surroundings.

Get your technique to the point it becomes second-nature. Then, and only then, will your mind be free to achieve the best of your creative potential.

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