A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Q'

Basic Landscape Photography

This photoguide article is on landscape photography. What I hope to do is not to show you how to be a National Geographic staff photographer, and as you read further you'll see why this isn't necessarily possible nor probably what you want, but instead to give you some idea how to improve your images and take pictures you would be proud to frame on your living room wall.

The Tough Part

In my opinion, the toughest part about landscape photography is learning to be patient. Especially if you're travelling. This is for two reasons. First, it's hard to tame ones excitment when you're on vacation. If you're like me, you arrive in say Prague and you want to immediately start snapping away as soon as you step off the train !! I mean it's PRAGUE !!! Your adrenaline is pumping and everything looks amazing those first few moments you arrive in a new locale. And that will probably last for the next 2-3 days. So the tendency is to snap away at everything !! I mean it's PRAGUE !! Well, there's really nothing wrong with that. Especially in the age of digital cameras. But unless you're super lucky, you're not likely to take your best shots during this time. You're simply too excited and don't take the time to properly choose the right locations and compositions that will give you those stunning photos. My advice is this, when you first arrive at a new location. Indulge a little. Take some test shots, check them on your digital camera, but don't be disappointed if they aren't your best. And plan for a second visit later on in the day or the next day to the same locations for your pictures. The most important thing to do is LOOK around and get to know your location. The stunning shots will take a little longer. What's the second toughest part ? I'll tell you later. ;-)

What is Landscape Photography ?

So what is a landscape ? Is it simply a picture of mountains or of a stream ? How is it different from a picture of a person ? How is different from a picture of an object ? Simply put, the basis of landscape photography is to record the land. The size, the shape, and even the feel of the land. Keep these goals in mind when you take your next landscape shot. How can I convey a sense of the size of this vast wilderness ? What is it about the shape of this stream that's so interesting ? What is the mood of a sunset ?


A photograph is essentially a 2 dimensional thing. However, the real world is not 2 dimensional. In order to properly convey a sense of the size of the real world, we must employ the artist's concept of "perspective". Our visual perception of the size of the world, is based on being able to reference it against a known quantity. The relative size of a mountain against, say your 18 year old sister, gives your brain important clues about how big the mountain is, or how far it is away from your current location. Here I'll share with you one tip. If you ask a professional (and I have), the first thing they think about when composing a landscape is not what's far off in the distance, but what is close at hand in the foreground. Try to include an object such as a rock or plant in the foreground to give the photo a sense of "vastness". Try different compositions. You'll quickly find that different techniques are more effective to convey the sense of space than others.

In order to gain more detail of the distant landscape you will have to increase what is known as the "depth-of-field". Which is basically how much infront and how much in back of the subject you've focused on is sharp. If you have it on your camera, be sure to use the landscape setting (the little triangular mountain shape on your camera's mode selector). The camera should take care of the rest. On more advanced cameras (digital or film) there is an "A" setting and you can do more fine tuning. This setting allows you to choose the "aperature" of the lens. You'll have to read your camera's manual on how to do this. There are too many cameras out there for me to give you specific instructions within this guide. But generally it's very straightforward. Set the aperature to f8 or higher. Then compose and shoot. Your images will be clear from the foreground to far in the distance. Now the downside of this (you knew there was a downside didn't you?) is that setting the aperature higher closes down the hole infront of the lens which lets the light in. Which means that for a given sensitivity of film or digital camera sensor setting the longer it takes to get sufficient light into the camera to make a picture. Which means early in the morning or late in the evening, you're either going to have to hold the camera with incredibly steady hands to hold the camera while waiting for the picture to be taken, or you use a tripod. I'll explain in a minute why you want to be out early before sunrise and late after the sunset. In newer cameras there's also the choice to have vibration reduction (or Image Stabilization or Optical Stabilization, etc. depending on manufacturer) technology which can help, but generally a tripod is more effective and less expensive. Vibration reduction is expensive (I paid an additional $400 more for one lens with VR) !!


One other thing I don't think I need to tell you about is that zooming wide gives you the ability to capture more of the land. I think most people instinctively understand this point. For landscapes then, a wide angle lens is useful. Any lens capable of being set to a value between 20 to 36 mm is generally considered to be a good wide angle landscape lens when using 35mm film. Which means on most DSLR's that have a crop factor of x1.5 you'll need to purchase a lens capable of being set between 13 to 24 mm's. Many photographers say less than 20mm the images start to fisheye (bulge out in the middle) and more than 36 mm is too narrow to capture enough of the land. However, tastes vary. I was shooting sunsets using a zoom set around 100mm yesterday. So don't feel you must run out and spend hundreds on a new lens.


By following the rules of composition (covered in an earlier article) you can easily capture shape. Look for leading lines. Look for meandering s-curves. Again, get down and use wide-angle lens distortion to your advantage. Depending on the scene, different techniques will apply. But remember to decide beforehand what is it that appeals to you about this scene and then think of a way to capture it.



Feel can be created using a number of things. Colour is a great one. Blue is cool and red is warm. But how to capture blue ? How to capture red ? Think of the time of day. Early in the morning (about 30min before sunrise), as the mist rises from the ground, the low and diffuse light gives a cool feeling. So get up before the sun and you'll be-able to capture this mood. Just before the sun completely sets (about 30min before), the sky turns bright red and orange. Make your way to your chosen location and you'll capture this mood.


These two "magic moments" are the secret to capturing the great landscape colours.

Planning Your Shots

One fundamental of landscape photography is you don't control the subject. Mother nature controls the land. And she's not going to bother changing the position of the sun just for you. Nor will she move a mountain just because you asked her to, no matter how nice you ask. Begging might help, but I haven't tried that one. You let me know how well that works, ok ? ;-) So it's your job to be there, when the sun is in the right position, and your job to hike 3 miles up the hill to the lookout to properly frame the shot. Great landscape photography is a lot of work !! Next time you see a great shot of the Alps, just think about what it took to make that photograph.

Now there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself. Ask a local guide where the best scenery is. Or else use a map or guidebook and study the local area with photography in mind. Keep in mind the time of sunrise and sunset, and plan to be at a particular location to have the desired sunlight. Keep in mind the weather and season. Notice when there will be fog, high humidity, dense cloud cover and use these elements to diffuse the sunlight and change the mood of the photograph.

Which brings us to the second toughest thing about landscape photography. Having the time to take the pictures. If you're like me, you can't stay several months or even a year at a particular location to wait for the proper weather or light for that picture postcard perfect image. Yes, this is why you don't necessarily want to, nor have the means to become a National Geographic photographer. Those guys will literally live for months in a particular place to get one or two stunning images !! You or I can't afford to do that. But we can do our best. By carefully studying the area, planning our itinerary, using proper technique, and a little luck, we also can land a real "keeper" !!


There are two pieces of equipment that almost every landscape photographer says are a bare minimum to have.

One is a tripod. This is essential for long exposures (see above). The most important thing is choose one that's stable. So go into the store, extend it fully and wiggle the top to see how stable it is when holding your camera. This need not be the most expensive one. I paid $20 for a great tripod that I have no doubts would work great with my little Canon point&shoot.

The second is a polarizer filter (for autofocusing cameras you need to ask for a "circular" polarizer instead of a linear one. The linear ones don't work with the automatic focus.). This is a circular piece of glass that screws into the thread infront of your lens or into an adapter which connects to your camera. It works in a similar way to polarizing eyeglasses and will cut down the glare and haze from the sun. Your skys will be bluer and your grass will be greener. To set it you look through the lens and rotate the polarizer until you see that the colours are what you want. Use the view finder or LCD depending on your camera to look through the lens. Some cameras (like my Canon) are tricky and have a separate view finder which doesn't look through the lens. So I have to use the LCD. But generally if the view finder isn't viewing through the lens the LCD display does.

Landscape photography need not be complex or expensive. Infact, many professional landscape photographers use garage built wooden boxes with 19th century technology to achieve their results. Three out of 4 of the above photographs were taken with little point and shoot cameras. The important thing is to learn your subject and carefully plan your shots. Good luck and have fun !!

Posted by Q' 13:01 Tagged photography Comments (2)

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Posted by Q' 11:05 Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (2)

Travel Portraits

-17 °C

Ok, you're in Rome. You want to take a picture of your girlfriend infront of St. Peter's. How do you do it ? Here are a few hints.

Where's Waldo !?!
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. And, yes, I too did this before someone pointed it out to me. So don't feel too bad about it. The average "vacation" shot consists of some gorgeous landscape with your girlfriend, boyfriend, kids, mom, etc. in the foreground. Cropped midway from waist to well above the head. The person takes up less than 1/5th of the entire frame; just sneaking in to the frame to show "Hey, I was there !!". You've all seen it. You know "the picture" I'm talking about. Always reminds me of the front covers from the "Where's Waldo" books where Waldo sneaks onto the cover to wave at you.

So what's wrong with it ? What's wrong is that, is it a picture of a person or a place ? If the scenery is beautiful, it deserves to be photographed ! If the person in the photograph is dear to you, give her the framing she deserves ! Don't go half way !

If your photograph is to say "what a beautiful place", go wide. Fill the frame with the landscape. If you have a SLR, close down the aperature to f11 or above. If you have a point and shoot camera, use the landscape mode (little mountain thing on the dial). Then to show "you were there !", step way back, have your girlfriend step into the frame so that you get the majority of her body in frame, but not taking up more than 1/8th of the frame, and shoot. What will happen is you will have a sharp picture of the entire landscape, with your girlfriend just noticable but not taking away from the great scenery. To add pizzaz to the photo, you might have her make a face, or strike a pose, or put her at one of the cross-points according to the rule of thirds (see my article on rules of composition).

Me in Whitehorse.JPG
It was important for me that I capture the background to record my accomplishment of driving across Canada. So I framed it wide and included both the location name and my car. I was an afterthought. ;-)

If your photograph is to say "she was having a great time", go tight. Fill the frame with your girlfriend's face, 1/2 to 2/3's of the frame. If you have a SLR, open the aperature to f3.5 or more. If you have a point and shoot camera, use the portrait mode (little head thing on the dial). Then to show "you were there !", keeping your girlfriend in the frame, re-adjust your aim so that some significant point of interest is in the background, then shoot. What will happen is that her face will be infront, happy and showing her joy, while the background is out of focus, not distracting us from her face, but still showing enough detail to give us some sense of where she is and why she's so happy. My favourite way to add pizzaz to this type of photo is to be sneaky ;-) and take the photograph when the person isn't aware of what I'm doing. This takes a lot of psychology. Usually I'll just follow along watching, noticing what they're doing. You'll notice that certain things give them pleasure. Then you carefully work out a composition, pick an angle where you can get the right background, get your camera ready, then at just the right moment when she smiles or becomes intensely involved in something....*click* and you've got an all-natural photo of her worth a lifetime of memories !

Portraits don't have to be only of people. I had 1 second to catch this gorgeous cat in this composition.

A few other hints

"Too much space up top !"
My portraiture teacher just about traumatized me with that statement. It's the most common mistake made by amateur photographers. They aim the camera to locate the face in the middle of the frame and leave a huge (1/3rd or more of the frame) at the top. The empty space is neither large enough to be called "whitespace" and is too big to be ignored. Your eye is drawn to it like a magnet, taking away emphasis from the person.

To fix it, simply aim for the person's eye, place the eye level with the top horizon according to the "rule of thirds", zoom in to fill the rest of the frame, then shoot !

Taking pictures of kids
Kids are people too. Get down. Get down on your knees, look them at eye level, then shoot. In my opinion, the only time when it's acceptable to photograph kids from way up is if you want to emphasize how small they are.

I only went down slightly for this. Notice that the camera is not at eye level with the puppeteer, nor with the puppet. This gave a more balanced shot as the emphasis is on both the man and the puppet.

Forcing flash
Some cameras allow you to manually fire the flash. You see, on bright sunny days, the camera will automatically expose for the bright light entering the lens, making anyone in the frame seem dark (the personal absorbs some of the light). One way to fix this is simply to manually fire the flash in bright ambient light conditions. It's call "forcing the flash" or "fill flash".

Posted by Q' 05:43 Tagged photography Comments (2)

The Rules of Composition

-17 °C

What's the difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph ? Assuming you've gotten the colours right at the printers, you don't have a thumb in the way, and you have proper focus and exposure, photographers are always talking about what are known as the "rules of composition" when discussing the technical merits of a photograph. Depending on who you talk to, there are great differences in opinion about how many actual "rules" there are. I was taught that there are 14. And for no other reason than that, that is what I'm going to teach you.

1) Center of interest
Every photograph has one of these. What's the image about? Is it a picture of your wife? Is it a picture of the Great Pyramids of Giza? It should be very obvious with a single glance to every viewer what the photograph is "about". While it's called the "center" of interest, it isn't necessarily true that the subject of interest is in the center, or takes up a large part of the image, it is nevertheless very obvious that that is what the photograph is about.

This is the first rule of good composition, because it is the most important. Decide before hand what it is that you are taking a picture of. Everything else you do is then focus around
bringing that center of interest out.

The center of interest is obviously the violin player. Not the wall, not the violin, etc.

2) Fill the frame
This rule is here for mostly practical reasons. Film costs money. Even digital images will cost money to store and print. Once you decide what your center of interest is, fill the view finder with it. Get as much detail as you can. However there is a point at which it becomes too much. You want to fill the frame but you also want to leave some background and foreground to give a sense of context to your subject. I personally use around 80% as a guideline for how much to fill. That's not a hard and fast rule and I break it all the time myself. It's really up to your good taste and the effect you want to create.

There's a whole building and square behind and around this statue. But I chose to only photograph the statue and filled my frame with it.

3) Lines
Lines are extremely important in visual arts. Lines give us shapes and contours. Lines are what lead the viewer's eyes from one part of the photograph to another.

The zig-zag lines and twirl at the bottom of the stairs gives a modern twist to this.

4) Flow
After just finishing lines, we should talk about flow. Flow is how the viewer's eye is lead from one part of the photograph to another. One way to give flow to a photograph is to use lines. They can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, converging or diverging lines. Sometimes the flow created by lines is sharp and distinct (such as the sides of a building converging up into the sky), or they may be less obvious (such as a line of irregularly spaced stones that mark out a farmer's field). Nevertheless, the viewer's eye should be able to spot the same elements from one part of the image to another. Flow creates the illusion of motion (or lack of motion if so desired). Diagonal, converging or diverging lines are considered to be "dynamic" while horizontal and vertical lines are considered to be "static". A careful balance of dynamic and static elements will give an overall sense of motion to your photographs.

The motion blur and leading lines gives the viewer a sense that everyone is headed into a distant point.

5) Direction
Direction is similar to flow. It also creates the illusion of motion. If something in the photograph appears to be "moving" then it most likely has a direction in which it is moving. One example of what I mean is the little stick man that you find in many traffic lights. One stick man seems to be standing up straight, legs together, arms next to the body. Most people will agree that he doesn't appear, visually, to be moving. This is obviously the "do not walk" signal. His counterpart has bent arms and bent & spread legs. He appears to be moving. This is obviously the "safe to walk" signal. The "safe to walk" signal has a direction in which he is moving as indicated by the bent arms and legs. The "do not walk" signal seems static and has no direction of motion. Direction in photographs can be created in a number of ways. A lone figure in the middle of a convergent path appears to have direction despite the fact that his arms and legs may not be moving. That's because we feel as if we were to see him a split second later, we just know, he'll have his legs moving down the path. Similarly, a partially captured car just entering the frame from the left will lead us to think that in the next split second it will be at the right of the frame.

The line of figures gives the viewer a sense that everyone was walking towards me. Which infact, they were.

6) Repetition
Repetition of some subject (a bunch of hot air ballons, a flock of flamingos) gives a sense of togetherness to parts of the image. For instance, a group of hot air balloons may all be heading off in one direction. That group may create interesting patterns in the sky and add direction to the image. It can also have important psychological factors such as giving a sense of togetherness and friendship.

The repetition of the trees gives a sense of solidity. This photograph actually works because there's essentially two different levels of contrasting brightness.

7) Colours
There are warm colours and cold colours:

warm - red, orange, yellow
cold - blue, green, purple

There's a whole psychology thing with colours. Red's are "firey". Blue's are "tranquil". I won't go into it too much since I know there've been entire books written on the subject. So it should be fairly obvious why this is an important element of composition.

With colours, pay attention to contrast as well. Contrast is defined as the difference in the level of brightness between the brightest and darkest parts of your image. However, contrast is also created by placing warm and cold colours next to each other.

The bright yellow center is surrounded by a field of cooler green.

8) Groups of 3's
I've been told there's something psychologically appealing about groups of 3's. One is lonely, two is too well balanced and static, four and above is too much of a crowd. But 3 is just perfect !!
You know, as in Goldielocks and the 3 bears, 3 Stooges, 3 Musketeers, 3 colours on a flag, books come in trilogies, etc. Some how we humans just like 3's. Don't ask me why, I'm not a psychologist.

Back to photography. If you are going to photograph a group of something, either go big and photograph a bunch of them, or look for groupings of 3's as your center of interest. It works, trust me !

What a gorgeous group of ladies !

9) Rule of 3rds
This has been around for a long time. If you go into a museum and look at any really good painting. Then imagine a 3x3 grid on top of the picture, you'll notice that important elements such as eyes, windows, tops of mountains, horizon lines, etc. all line up with either one of the grid lines or at one of the intersections of the grid lines. It's claimed that by having your center of interest at one of these points or lines, you get a much more interesting image.

Note: some cameras allow you to super-impose such a grid pattern on the view finder to aide in composition. Check your manual.

Notice the position of the chandalier. Notice the position of the box. They're exactly on the "power points" according to the rule of thirds.

10) Negative Space
Basically large white or black space in the background (usually off to one side, but I've seen it done in other ways as well). Psychologically, we humans want to fill that space with our imagination (kind of like a cartoon thought balloon). It's a great trick because you can't go wrong. Whatever fills the negative space is interesting to the viewer because he/she came up with it herself !!

The butterfly is nicely highlighted by the white sand.

11) Foreground/Background
What's in the foreground and background is obviously important. This includes elements from the other rules, such as bright colours, or converging lines. But sometimes you can have too much in the foreground or background which will distract your viewer from your center of interest.

My little ducky travel companion forms my foreground, while the location is obviously placed by the background.

12) Framing
Look for things such as doorways, bridges, signs and other things to frame your subject under. It gives a sense of perspective and intimacy to the image. Ever notice they always have the bride walk through the big door into the church ? Ever notice how long hair can be used to frame the features of a face ?

Framing need not be created by solid frames. I positioned the camera so that the trees framed my subject.

13) Clutter
Clutter is having a lot of "stuff" in either the foreground or background. All those different shapes and shadows can distract (or in some cases if done well add to) from the center of interest. Cluttered images seem chaotic and disorganized. This is not necessarily a bad thing and may be used to convey a sense of dynamicism.

d_Arc_0102bw aged.jpg
The band and equipment forms a very cluttered group.

14) S-Curves
A lot of people love S curves. It's very sensuous and sexy. It's the shape of a woman's profile. It's also a meandering river, or slithering serpent. It's very dynamic, but not a fast, hasty kind of motion, but a slower more sensuous movement. It's also harder to find in nature, so is considered more interesting.

The dancer's body forms a natural and energetic S-Curve.

So there you are, the 14 "rules of composition". How you use them is going to be up to you and your good taste.

Posted by Q' 23:51 Tagged photography Comments (1)

Photography's Best Kept Secret !

-17 °C

What I'm going to tell you is the best kept secret EVER in photography. And I mean EVER !! With a captial E and.....well never mind you get the idea.

But really it's so simple that it really shouldn't be a "best kept secret". The "secret" is simply this; if you want to learn how to take a better photograph, go to an art gallery and LOOK!! A good painting, a sculpture, a drawing, or any piece of visual art is a good painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. for some good reasons. What you have to do is understand those good reasons and reproduce them in photographs. So the next time you're in the Louvre, or the Prado, or the MET really take some time and analyze what you're seeing. What makes the painting work? What colours contrast with which? Which shapes and elements stand out? What does the lighting and texture make you feel? And so on. Then once you've understood how these great works of art achieve their mastery, use this same "bag of tricks" in your own photography. Not only will you enjoy the museum art more, you'll be surprised how quickly your photographic technique improves. That's all there is to it. Wasn't that simple ?
Here's one example to illustrate. I took it on a sunny day walking along on the Charles' Bridge in Prague when I was feeling a bit cheeky. ;-)


Notice the diagonal posture which hints at motion and power. Notice the dark, foreboding figure in front of the bright blue sky. I would've liked to have a bit more light on the figure's face, but alas Mother Nature didn't co-operate. Now take a look at this famous work by Michelangelo Buonarroti, which "hangs" rather prominently in the Vatican museum. Notice the commonalities ?!?

Creation of the Sun and Moon

Posted by Q' 22:07 Tagged photography Comments (3)

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