Landscape or scenic photography depicts expanses of land, water and sky, and is perhaps one of the most difficult and most misunderstood subjects.
For inspiration we have the classic work of Ansel Adams' Mural Project and the incredible colour of Malak Karsh among others. Although we can learn from the techniques of others, the one overriding requirement for successful landscape photography is the ability to allow yourself to see. If you are confronted with a dramatic landscape, think about how you can best convey that drama to the viewer, so they are as awed as you when they see your shot. Stop and determine where that drama comes from. Is it the geography, the light, the weather? Is it texture, pattern, colour or size? What do you have to capture and feature to show the viewer what you experienced. Open your heart to the feelings of the scene, then open your eyes to understand them.
When shooting a landscape, discard every rule that you 'should' follow, then come back to them one at a time. Use what will help your shot succeed, and have a good reason for using the rule. Keep it simple. A scene is what it is. You can't move an inconvenient hill, or change the colour of the sky. You work with what you are given, adjust your point of view and perspective to best advantage, and capture the best photograph that you possibly can.
Although many fine landscape shots have been made during the middle of the day, sunrise and sunset bathe the scene in a warm glow, and provide dramatic shadows to accentuate features and textures. Low light also gets in under overhangs to bring out features which would otherwise disappear into shadow when the sun is high in the sky. Many features are best photographed with backlighting, which is much easier when the sun is low. The next time you are out trying to capture fall colours when the leaves turn, let the sun shine through the leaves. They will glow with a life of their own.
On cloudy days, the sun may shine through breaks in the clouds, with patches of light crossing the scene in front of you. Set up your shot, and learn to be patient. Get the shot when a patch of light illuminates what you are shooting. Under these conditions, you may have seconds to react, or your may have to wait for hours. Don't walk away. Wait for it!
If the day is overcast, use the soft light to advantage for pastel colours and even a soft focused dreamy effect. Think about flower gardens and fairies, pleasant dreams and watercolours. Try to see the world with gentle eyes.
Learn to use whatever lighting conditions you encounter. Often scheduling does not allow you to return to a site, so do the best you can under the conditions you encounter. But keep a record of the sites that you would like to return to, and the type of lighting you would like to see. If you have the opportunity, go back and do it again.
Point of interest has less meaning in a scenic shot. Sometimes a discrete object or structure can provide a point of interest, but just as often it is diffuse and defined more as a confluence of lines and shapes. Often the rule of thirds works when positioning the horizon, emphasizing either the sky or the foreground. However the reflection of a mountain in a still lake would lend itself to a centered horizon, using the symmetry to best advantage.
Sometimes you can help the shot. I remember talking to Malak about his shot of Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta. The shot is a beautiful combination of cool colours, with the mountain in the background behind the lake. In the midst of all these blues and greens is a tiny red canoe placed precisely at the lower right 1/3 point. Malak explained to me that it was his canoe, and that his assistant took it out into the lake, and positioned it, with Malak guiding him using a walkie-talkie. If you can use something or someone in the scene to act as a point of interest, so much the better. Keep them subtle if you do use them. You want them to attract and hold the attention of the viewer, but you still want the scene to be the subject of the photograph, not the object or person.
Rules of composition are a guide to give you ideas about how to approach the shot. However, the ultimate guide is the image you are creating. Some of the best images I have seen break every rule in the book. On the other hand, some of the worst could be vastly improved by cropping them to conform to the rules. As a photographer, it is up to you to assess the image and your approach. Let the image guide you.
I once read a post on a reputable photography site, made by a reputable photographer, that stated you needed a 300 mm lens to do landscape photography. I was appalled! Looking at his photographs, I realized he spent most of his time in a dry climate. Where I live, high humidity will produce a distant haze that interferes with the clarity of telephoto shots. Do not limit yourself.
Telephoto lenses magnify and make distant objects appear larger. It is much easier to fill the frame with a distant mountain. The magnified image will also foreshorten the apparent distance between objects. From a distance, a house one mile in front of the mountain will appear to be nestled at its base.
Wide angle lenses diminish and make close objects appear to be farther away. They are excellent for accentuating foreground, and vast expanses. If you take the time to get to the base of the mountain, you might find a house nestled at its base, and you may need a wide angle lens to get the whole mountain in the shot.
Use your perspective and adjust your camera position accordingly. Then choose your lens.
Besides the camera, your most important piece of equipment is a tripod. Your camera MUST be steady. I use a Manfrotto and have never regretted the price. Use a remote cable release, so you do not have to touch the camera to release the shutter.
Polarizing filters to eliminate specular reflections, and lens hoods to reduce lens flare will benefit any scenic shot, and indeed work well with any photo, not just scenics.
If you can use a vehicle to access the shooting site, portability is not a factor. However, if you have to walk, an adequate backpack, or even a little wagon you can pull behind you, will make it easier to get your equipment to where you need it. Think about where you are going, and what you will need when you get there.
Many photographers cringe when they hear this term, and rightly so in most cases.
However, your job with scenics is to convey a feeling to the viewer that you experienced when you encountered the original scene. If the effect will help you convey that feeling, go ahead and use it. Just don't let the effect overwhelm the scene. It should be additive, not a distraction.
Today the most talked about effect is HDR (High Dynamic Range). This is a process to take two or more shots of the same scene, exposed differently to capture detail in the highlights and in the shadows, and combining them using software to create a composite shot wih improved definition across the full range of illumination. Both the scene and the camera must be static. To get the images you need, your camera must be on a tripod, and multiple exposures are made at various shutter speeds. In some cases, the effect is subtle, and the images are spectacular. In some the effect is anything but subtle, and the images take on a surreal quality that screams at the viewer.
Other post-processing effects are available. Just remember that if you do not have a good photo to begin with, you will end up with a poor photo after post-processing. The give-away is if the effect becomes the subject.
In-camera effects used to be much more popular than they are now. Diffusers and CS filters (to produce a Crossed Star effect) are still available, but became overused in the past. Graduated colour filters are still used to shoot waterfront scenes for the lead-in to CSI Miami, but I have not seen them used anywhere else recently.
Putting It Together
When you see a scene, take the shot. Then move. Look around you for things that will help you. Is there a structure which will allow you to get higher? Are there holes you can shoot through to frame the scene with foreground? With every move and new idea, take the shot. Eventually your ideas will begin to gel, and your best shot will begin to materialize in your mind. As you become more accomplished, you will shoot less and think more.
Collect some tourist brochures for your area, and see if you can either duplicate, or improve on the scenics used on the brochures. Then try to capture other scenes around you. The more you shoot, the more you will understand.
Remember that award winning shots are few and far between. You should be striving for competence. Every shot should communicate a feeling to the viewer.
A quotation from Malak Karsh is inscribed on his tombstome: "Every time I leave my studio in search of new pictures I ask GOD to open my eyes so that I can see. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t discover some surprise that makes me wonder how I missed it before. That is part of the pleasure in life. To keep searching."