Through the Gadling Lens: landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes

Last week, we discussed the best way to take a portrait (since portraits can often add a lot of colour to a travel album) — this week, we get to the good stuff: how to take great scenery shots. At first blush, it would be easy to believe that shooting a landscape image would be pretty much intuitive — just make sure you have the right focal length lens (about 50 mm or less), aim and shoot, right? The truth is, there are a few tips and tricks that can be used to turn your scenery shots up a notch, and help ensure that you capture those memories as accurately as possible.

So, without further ado:
1. Portrait or landscape? Pick one. If I were to choose one of the biggest … well, not mistakes, but … things that people do that can make a shot somewhat confusing, it’s trying to combine a portrait or a landscape. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do to both focus on your partner’s winning smile and get an Ansel Adams-quality image of the Grand Canyon behind her. Remember, there’s no crime in taking two shots: first take a nice tight close-up of your partner’s lovely face (with just enough background so you can sort of tell where the shot was taken, if you must), and then take a beautiful panoramic view of the scenery behind her.

2. Notwithstanding number 1 above, don’t be afraid to use people to show scale. In other words, this is not to say that you can’t have people in your shots; to the contrary, having people in your images can show how immense the structures are, or how vast the scenery.

Now of course, the above shots were taken with the people far away from me, so they were perfect for showing scale. But if the only people around are standing right next to you (like say, your partner joining you at the edge of the Grand Canyon), then here’s a trick: position him at the edge of the shot, and instead of having him face you and smile, have him look out at what you’re taking the picture of. That way, when you print the image, your partners gaze will help direct the viewer’s gaze to the subject of the shot — the vastness of the canyon. If, instead your partner had been smiling into the camera, it would’ve been more confusing for the viewer — do they look at the beautiful smile or the beautiful canyon?

Make sense?


3. Before you take the shot, think about why you’re taking the shot. What is it that took your breath away, made you instinctively reach for the camera? Perhaps it’s the height of the buildings, or the vastness of the ocean or the deep blue of the early evening sky. Whatever it is, take a moment to actually compose the shot in your head before you actually aim your camera.

For example: in the shot above, I was stunned by the vibrant colour of the foliage of that tree on an otherwise dismally grey November day. Now, I could’ve taken the image so that the tree was in the center of the shot, or so the foliage took up most of the frame, but when I thought about it, it wasn’t just the yellow that I loved, it was the yellow in contrast to all of the grey around it. So in order to convey the contrast, I decided to place the tree a bit to the left of the frame, in order to capture more of its bland, nondescript surroundings.

In the shot above, what I loved was not just the cobblestone street, or the quaint buildings, but the sense of closeness of the buildings to the road, and the way the road wound down among the chock-a-block houses all the way to the ocean. So I took the shot in a way that would convey this. I have lots of other pictures of the quaint buildings and roads in addition to this shot, so it gives a more complete sense of what it was like to be in that small fishing village.

And finally, I’ve always had a thing for communities built on the banks of a stream (even if the stream is manmade) — I find the water so calming, and it lends to an air of peace in the communities through which they meander. I tried to capture that sense of peace both of the preceding images, the first of Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswalds, and the second in an early morning shot on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas.

4. Break the rules. Sometimes, the best shots you get happen when you break all of the rules. So go ahead and shoot into the sunshine, or pick an odd angle to capture your shot, or capture the image at an odd time of day. Experiment a little.

For example, the shot above was taken in the late afternoon — I wanted to capture what the scene looked like while my friends and I were sitting in the lawn of a rented house on the Oregon coast. So I went ahead and shot right into the sun — and captured my friend’s silhouette, so I would remember the moment that the photo was taken.

This shot, above, was taken during a walk in the town of Falmouth, in Cornwall. I looked through the weeds and could see the beautiful estuary below, but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the fronds. So I decided to take the shot anyway, focusing on the boat and scene in the background. The result was this interesting image, which tells as much about what was right around me, as it does the view.

And finally, Big Ben. We’d been sightseeing all day, and I was really hoping to get a shot of the Houses of Parliament — but it was wintertime, and the light had all but disappeared when we arrived. Rather than be disappointed that I wasn’t going to get my daytime shot, I decided to give a nighttime shot a go: Knowing that a flash would be pretty much useless, I upped my ISO to pretty high (around 1000), and found somewhere to steady my camera (the railing along the Thames), and took the shot. I think the result was better than anything I might have taken during broad daylight.

5. Stitch together photographs for a great panoramic shot
. Sometimes, the view is so vast and so big, your camera lens won’t be able to capture the entire scene — so consider taking a series of shots, and “stitch” them together to capture the scene. The panorama above, of Bow Lake (about 30 miles north of Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada) was taken by my husband Marcus on a cycling trip, and is actually a series of individual images that he took with his point-and-shoot, and connected together in Photoshop. If you think you’d like to try your hand at creating your own panorama, here are a couple of tips:

a) Always shoot from left to right (or from right to left). The point is to do the shots in sequence, so that when you upload the photographs, they upload in the proper sequence.

b) Find (or make) a horizon, and keep it constant as you take the shots. If you can use a tripod, that’s ideal, but obviously, you don’t always have a tripod available. Just try to keep the horizon as straight and horizontal as possible as you take your series of shots.

c) Overlap the shots by almost 33% each time you squeeze the shutter. It will make stitching them easier once you upload them to your computer.

As mentioned, Photoshop has a great “stitching” program for creating panoramic shots, but if you don’t have Photoshop (or any other type of photo editing software), has free photo editing software that apparently does a great job of “stitching.”

And finally, since we’re on the subject, a word about Photoshop: I find that even more than portraits, landscape and seascape shots can often do with a bit of photo editing. Landscape shots straight out of the camera can sometimes feel a bit flat, compared to your memory of the scene at the time. Don’t be afraid to bump up the contrast or sharpen an image to make the final result a more accurate representation of what you experienced (how I edit images can be found here).

Hopefully this has given you a couple of new ideas for your landscape shots! If you have any questions or comments, as always, please leave them below, or e-mail me directly at karen DOT walrond AT weblogsinc DOT com. I’ll be happy to address them in upcoming posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.