The Cardinal Sins of Landscape Photography

The Two Towers

Great landscape photography makes us want to jump out of our chairs and rush into the wilderness. It fills us with wonder at the beauty and majesty of our planet Earth. But going to beautiful places is just one ingredient in taking beautiful landscape photos. We often go to amazing places only to look back on the pictures with disappointment.

Why is it often so difficult to capture natural beauty with our cameras? Pro photographers know the answer to this question: it is because our cameras don't work in exactly the same way as our eyes. If you want to capture what you see, you need to understand what the camera sees while you are taking photos.

Understanding the limitations of digital cameras takes time and practice. If you become obsessed with photography, and you are patient and talented, you can learn to anticipate how your camera sees a scene before you press the button. Lucky for you, I have already been obsessed for several years now and I can pass on a few tricks I have learned. These are the biggest mistakes I see beginning landscape photographers make, along with steps for correcting them.

Blown out skies or water

Linville Overexposed Sky

This picture of Linville Falls has an overexposed sky, which makes it look amateurish and steals the photo's impact.

The first step in creating a powerful image is to make sure the image is properly exposed. A properly exposed image shows detail in the light areas such as the sky, water, or snow. It often (but not always) has detail in the shadow areas as well. But you will often be confronted with scenes which have very bright areas as well as deep, dark shadows. How can you tell your camera which areas are most important?

Most digital cameras allow you to lock your focus and exposure by pressing the shutter button halfway down. You will often hear an audible beep from your camera when this happens. When you hear the beep, you can keep the button pressed halfway down and the focus and exposure of the scene will remain locked. So how can you use this to avoid blown out skies?

When you are composing your picture, simply point the camera at the sky and lock the exposure by holding the shutter button halfway down. Then point the camera at your real subject, compose the picture, and press the shutter the rest of the way down.

When you use this technique you will often find that the subject is now dark and underexposed. Even if you have not read up on exposure, you can still use exposure locking to improve your photography. It will just require a little trial and error. Just use the exposure locking technique on several areas of the scene with different levels of brightness. This way you will have several different exposures and you can choose the best one.

I highly recommend everyone with an interest in photography learn the basics of exposure. Many people feel intimidated by it, because there is a bit of math involved. But understanding exposure will open the doors to making creative decisions for yourself in photography. If you want to read a good basic exposure tutorial I recommend Asheville photographer Dave Allen's exposure tutorials, part I and II.

Oversaturation of colors

The digital revolution has been a wonderful thing for photography. It has brought the cost of photography down significantly as you no longer have to pay for film or film development. This means even amateurs can take as many pictures as they want. Practice makes perfect, and in my opinion there are more good photographers out there because of this switch. Digital has also given us a more powerful array of tools than the old darkroom techniques we used in the days of film photography.

The digital revolution has created a few new problems, too. It is too easy to put your mouse over that saturation slider in Lightroom or Aperture or Photoshop and crank it up to unrealistic levels.

Realistic color

This photo of Whitewater Falls has nice, natural looking color.

Oversaturated color

Some people may even find the color enhanced version more pleasing. The only problem is those leaves are not actually this shade of green!

Color is an important tool in creating powerful photographs. Just remember that it is only one of the tools available to you, and that abusing the saturation slider can make your photos look amateurish. Instead of cranking up the saturation on your photos, try exploring other elements of composition to make a more powerful statement.

Lack of Composition

Schoolhouse Falls

Good composition is often undervalued by beginning photographers but it is one of your most effective tools for making powerful photographs. This picture of Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley shows the value of good composition, especially when compared to the cropped version below.

Schoolhouse Falls

This is the exact same photo of Schoolhouse Falls with the foreground cropped out of the picture. The lack of good composition steals most of the impact of this photo.

For more information on how to create powerful compositions, check out my article on Beginning Composition for Waterfall Photography.

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