Landscape photography is such a joy. It was probably the thing that got me into photography in the first place and since the lifting of the lockdowns I’ve been having an absolute blast getting outside and rediscovering my love of capturing epic scenery and sunsets (I’m definitely more of a sunset person than sunrise, particularly if I haven’t had coffee!). But it’s not easy.
Two weeks ago I found myself at the top of a mountain lookout in the Pyrenees with nothing short of breathtaking views, and I found it very difficult to come up with a pleasing composition. The scenery was just too much to take in, there was nothing to put in the foreground. What I really needed was to watch this video by Photo Tom so that I could have avoided these 7 common mistakes that he sees in his landscape workshops.
So let’s hear what Thoma says are the most obvious mistakes that he keeps seeing with beginner landscape photographers.
- Lack of a clear subject. This was exactly what I was up against up the mountain. So what did I do? I basically put my camera away for a while, walked around a bit, sat down and froze my butt off for a while and enjoyed the view. I had a few people ask if I was OK because I was on a photo trip not taking photos, and then got shown some Edelweiss by the mountain guide which was nice. But after letting the scenery sink in a little I was able to look a bit more carefully and really think about what I was seeing, how the light was slowly moving and turning orange than pink, and which parts of the mountains opposite I found interesting and could single out into more interesting compositions. Thomas says that great compositions are often fairly simple, you should choose one subject and then create a composition around that that supports it. I don’t know if I achieved that, but it was certainly fun trying.
- Not every photo needs a foreground element. It’s one of those classic things that you learn in landscape photography that every great image needs a foreground element. But does it? Thoma thinks not, and if I think back to my time on the mountain, it was nearly impossible to get any kind of meaningful foreground element. We were above the tree line, there were some scrubby pieces of grass and some goat droppings, but honestly not a lot else. Rubbish foreground elements are worse than no foreground elements so if there isn’t anything around then just leave them out.
- The subject is too close to the edges of the image. By doing this, the edges of the photo almost become part of the composition. You can certainly do this deliberately if you want to create tension, or if you’re adding copy, but generally, you want to be a bit careful with the placement of your subject. Usually, this happens when people are trying for the Rule of Thirds and go a little overboard. It happens, we’re probably all guilty of this, getting carried away with those thirds!
- Including elements that compete with your subject. You always want to ask yourself “what’s the hero of the image?”. By that I mean what is the most important element or subject in the image, and does everything in the photo support and enhance that, or detract from that? Now the tricky thing about landscape photography is that if there’s a tree in the way not supporting your ‘hero’ then it’s a bit frowned upon to return with a chain saw to get the perfect composition, unlike still life where you can move the elements around and add and subtract things to your heart’s content. But sometimes it’s just a matter of moving a few feet to the left or right, or forwards or backwards to get a slightly different point of view. Generally brighter patches will draw the eye first, also bright warm colours (like red things) and larger sized things are high up in the visual hierarchy. It’s good to try to remember these things and be aware of them while you’re out shooting to avoid disappointment later.
- Not knowing when and how to use a circular polarizing filter (CPF). The first most common mistakes with CPF are to use it at full power so to speak so that the sky turns completely dark. Now there are instances when you’re shooting black and white photography where you might do this for dramatic effect, but generally, it’s not something to be doing all the time, particularly in colour images. The other common issue with CPF is when shooting with very wide-angle lenses. You can run into getting the dreaded patchy sky or x appearing where you’ve turned it too far. This is also true of cheaper variable ND filters. Thoma says in this instance it’s much better to shoot 2 exposures and put them together later in post or to use an ND Grad filter.
- Not using or understanding the histogram. I must confess that I’m not a big histogram lover, I get it, I understand it, but I don’t often think “oh let me check the histogram” when I’m out shooting. It’s very naughty of me and something I must try better at. Thoma says to have the histogram set to RGB rather than the average grey. This is because at blue hour the blue channel can easily become overexposed. Similarly, during sunrise and sunset, the red channel becomes over-exposed while the grey histogram shows it as being ok because it’s showing an average of the 3 channels.
- Asking whether it’s better to overexpose or underexpose. Thoma says this is not a good question to be asking. Again you need to know what the main subject of your photo is, and then expose it correctly for that. It will be different depending on what you’re shooting and what mood you’re trying to convey. I never set out to deliberately over or underexpose my images, I usually try for the right exposure, and if you’re shooting RAW then you have some wriggle room to tweak the exposure.
I’m definitely going to try to remember these things the next time I go out to shoot landscapes. Have you been making any of these mistakes?