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  • Writer's pictureMartin Osner


Updated: May 7, 2023

Out of all the genres, landscape photography remains the most popular, and yet it is one of the most difficult to master.

Monochrome photograph of trees photographed against a dark background
Ebony and Ivory

Our Landscape Photography season for 2020 is just around the corner. In preparation for those who have booked on the class as well as folk who are considering landscape photography, I thought it beneficial to take look at the art behind capturing quality landscape images.

Out of all the genres, mastering landscape photography remains the most popular, and yet it is one of the most difficult to learn.

So why is this discipline so popular?

Well, I think it has a lot to do with our love for the outdoors. Travelling, exploring and enjoying nature is the main attraction. Capturing a great photograph of the landscape is the prize. A photograph serves as a wonderful way of preserving memories and sharing places, experiences and adventures with others.

So what makes mastering the art of landscape photography so difficult?

Well, I think it boils down to one simple fact. What the human eye sees combined with what we experience in reality, is very different from what the camera and lens can record. Seasoned landscape photographers will testify to this.

Human eyesight is three-dimensional combined with peripheral vision and in comparison the photographic process records in two dimensions on a linear axis which is very different from one another. Once you take away depth and the emotional experience which includes expectations, sound and smell, you are left with a two dimensional, flattened interpretation of the scene. The camera does not capture exactly what we are seeing let alone experience.

Colour, contrast, depth, exposure, lens compression and distortion all play a role in altering the scene. The photographic process is different from the human eye and we need to embrace this instead of fighting against it. "I photograph because I like to see what the scene will look like once photographed". Sounds strange, but it's true. One also has to come to terms with the fact that not every scene can be photographed well and I have often had to put my camera down and simply enjoy the experience without taking a picture, even though the scene I am looking at is incredible!

This happened to me just a few years ago on a trip to the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape and again in the Cederberg a few months later. In both locations, I was overwhelmed by the landscape, parts of the Richtersveld felt like it was on another planet and some of the locations in the Cederberg the mountains felt prehistoric!

Martin Osner taking a photograph of a lone tree in the arid wilderness of the Richtersveld
Photographing in the desert

Yet both proved to be unsuccessful trips yielding very little to show photographically. Translating the splendour of the landscape at these locations on the day proved virtually impossible for me, mainly because of uncomplimentary lighting conditions and bland uncomplimentary skies.

(Left Photographing in the harsh landscape of the Richtersveld)

The quality, direction and colour of light are, without doubt, the catalyst in this genre of photography. Light can transform an average scene into a sublime impression and the angle and quality of light play a significant role. Back, side and front lighting all create a different effect. Backlighting amplifies contrast and introduces mood, side lighting increases texture, and front lighting flattens texture and contrast which can be used to achieve simplicity. For every scene, there would be an ideal lighting condition, sometimes even more than one, depending on the photographer's vision and intention.

Keep in mind that great lighting will very often reveal itself from behind a curtain of unusual weather and atmospheric conditions. Storms, clouds, dust, pollution, smoke, moisture, mist, fog, etc. all play a role in creating beautiful light. It taunts and teasers as it comes and goes.

Blue clear skies and harsh uninterrupted sunlight are not welcoming conditions for shooting, enjoying an ice-cold beer or a chilled glass of wine, yes, but not for landscape photography. That is why most serious landscape photographers only work during the golden hours. From pre-dawn to just after sunrise and a few hours before sunset until last light.

Light breaks through the clouds and highlights the desert mountains in the background
Desolate Harmony

Great lighting will very often reveal itself from behind a curtain of heavy weather

To be a successful landscape photographer not only do you need to be a proficient technician combined with an artistic inclination, but it also helps to be an undercover meteorologist. Back in the day before technology, it was said that only two types of people were allowed to predict weather, fools and out of towners. Well with today's applied science, satellite imagery and weather apps one can get a pretty good idea of the weather forecast. At least this gives an insight of what to expect, and yes, the rest I agree, is up to good fortune, technique and perfect timing.

Heavy weather brings in a cloudy sky. A perfect backdrop to a stunning ocean view
Classic Black and White Seascape

Light can change the ordinary into spectacular

You see, a photograph should never have to be explained to attain the viewer interest, only enjoyed. Great photography evokes the viewer's, emotion and stimulates discussion and debate on its own. Yet when one's landscape photography skills are jaded, a lot of explaining is needed to justify the reason for taking the picture.

I have found that there is such a lot of "emotional attachment" connected to landscape photography. Allow me to explain. Because we were there in the moment, and because we experienced the scene at the time, the photograph holds special value to us. The picture serves as a reminder and because of these emotions, we tend to look past the errors and lack of dynamic interest. That is why we are often bewildered when others don't enjoy it for what it is. Anyone who has had their landscape photographs judged for competition purposes will know exactly what I am talking about.

Because of this emotional attachment, I try not to evaluate or make in-depth selections on my work for at least six months after photographing them. Granted I will have an initial quick look through, delete what needs to be deleted and then I will store the remainder away on a hard drive and forget about them. The longer the better. Sometimes I have to laugh when I view the files after the emotion and expectations have subsided, and then usually delete frame after frame wondering what on earth I was expecting to achieve at the time. Then only the best will be processed.

A valley fills with mist leaving a solitary tree exposed against the mountains of Swellendam in the backgroun.
Solitary Tree

A photograph should never have to be explained, only enjoyed by the viewer

Still dealing with the reason why landscape photography is challenging, another point I would like to bring up is around quality. After spending the time to scout a location, find the perfect composition and wait for the light, there should be no excuse for technical error. Yes, you guessed it, no shooting in a compressed format like Jpeg, no editing of pixels to try and squeeze out an acceptable result, no excessive cropping to make up for the lack of poor or lazy compositional errors and no excuse for insufficient depth or lack of sharpness.

This is where a lot of photographers come short. Proficient landscape photography requires confident equipment handling and proper file developing. Note, I said developing, not editing! Developing is working with the RAW file data, editing is working with pixels, like in Photoshop. This genre of photography requires careful, non-destructive developing, using RAW processing software like ACR (Adobe Camera RAW)

Landscape photographs need to be printed and displayed large. It's only when printed and displayed that the photograph comes alive. So here's a word of warning, the print is the ultimate policeman guarding the photographic process. Every mistake throughout the entire process will show up for the world to see, and the larger the print the more obvious the error will become. If you expose incorrectly, you likely to see noise or banding, if you don't use the optimum aperture you will see aberrations on the outer parts of the print and poor depth. Should you not manage contrast correctly your dominant shadows and/or brighter highlights will lack detail. If you over sharpen, you will see a thin white line around sharp edges. If you don't clean dirt spots they will stick out like a pimple. And oh yes, worth a this world, there is no place for phone photography.

An arid panoramic print in a frame displayed on a wall in a modern bedroom.
Desert Panoramic

Ideally landscape photographs need to be printed and displayed large

Allow me to also comment on the question around the composition in landscape photography. Putting aside creative approaches, landscape photography is at its heart, quite structured. Some photographers do have a natural inclination towards composition, I accept this, but for the most part, many need help. Just like one can cook from a recipe to achieve a predictable yet favourable outcome, we too can follow certain guidelines (rules) to do the same. Guidelines that work have been passed down through art itself as well as human visual studies. These guidelines work, no question about it, but to go beyond this there is also a world of visual design where the guidelines of composition are not forgotten but rather used as a base to build on. Here, the composition is structured through elements like shapes, rhythm and pattern to mention a few. By using the same basic compositional guidelines over and over can make your photography predictable. Using design will allow you to explore beyond this.

The colours of an autumn tree displays beautifully against a dark background.

An example of the impact by using a simple triangular shape

Lastly, one of the worlds greatest photographers and one of my mentors Ansel Adams said. “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” I could not agree more! If you want to consistently take impressive landscape photographs, you must learn where to place the camera. Simply plonking down a tripod is not going to do it. Tripods don't know the composition. They are a necessary evil, which is simply used to keep the camera steady during exposure. Explore through the viewfinder first, a camera in the hand is far better than working with the restrictions of a tripod. The slightest movement left to right or up and down, a small tilt from left to right or top to bottom can make the world of difference. Once you know exactly where the camera needs to be you can set up the tripod properly to do its work.

Simplistic ocean photography with a whispery sky in the background.
Ocean Vista

Basic starting point. Learn where to place the camera

Most of the work in taking successful landscape photographs is done before the event. Finding the right location and working out where to place your camera will certainly give you a better chance at capturing the moment. While scouting you should take into account, the predicted angle of light, foreground interest, lens distortion when using a wide-angle lens and compression for a telephoto lens, angle of approach as well as the depth of field. Then set up your camera, and wait. If you see the light as the moment starts to unfold and you are not set up yet...I am afraid it's too late. Landscape photography is about days of planing, hours of waiting, followed by moments of terror as it all comes together. Many hours of wondering if it's going to work and then moments worrying about screwing it up when it does start to work.

Unfortunately, the consensus of the public when it comes to the ability to photograph great landscapes is that all one needs is an expensive camera, the resources and time to travel and a good eye. What a lot of nonsense. Having an instinctive feel for a composition will help sure, but even an entry-level SLR (Single Lens Reflex) or Mirrorless system with a fair quality lens and a sturdy tripod can suffice in getting started. Great photographic opportunities all around regardless of travel. There are great landscape photographic opportunities everywhere, one does not need to travel to the ends of the earth to find them.

Quite frankly I would rather take a brilliant photograph of an average scene than take an average photograph of a brilliant scene. All you need to get started is to understand some basic technical principles, learn about light and composition and gain an understanding of file processing and you are on your way.

In closing, I would like to mention there are different ways to approach landscape photography. This article is the opinion of one photographer who has been wrestling with outdoor photography for over thirty years. This is merely a summary of my recommendations which I hope you find insightful and of value. If so please share with others.

Obviously, there is much more to it than this which is better learned in practice. This is why I present a One Week Masterclass in Landscape Photography where I can offer over the shoulder, one on one practical training and mentorship.

Here are several landscape prints that you can have a look at which I trust will inspire you.

Check out this video which will give you an idea behind the Course we offer in Landscape Photography. This masterclass is taught in Cape Town during winter when the weather conditions are conducive for producing excellent light.

If you found this article interesting, we suggest you also read: THE DAY CREATION WAS UNVEILED by Martin Osner


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