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For Better Landscape Photos, Rethink Your Definition of Landscape

Picking an unusual vantage point and incorporating a cultural element are among Nikon photographer Flash Parker’s tips for taking landscape images that stand out from the crowd.

For Better Landscape Photos, Rethink Your Definition of Landscape

Photo courtesy of Flash Parker, shot on the Nikon D7500.

Landscapes have been a preferred subject since light was recorded on film, and with good reason—a landscape photograph can capture the vastness of the world as easily as it can capture its smallness. It can showcase nature at its most stunning or during its most destructive phases. To master this style of photography takes patience, experience, technical knowledge, and an artistic eye. Pro tips and tricks come in handy, too. Here are some of mine to help you take better landscape photography on your next trip.

Beginner-Friendly Tips:

1. Experiment with Black and White
If Ansel Adams could do it, why can’t you? Sometimes, a conversion from color to black and white is just what an image needs. When considering whether an image is a good candidate for conversion, I look for scenes of high contrast and striking lighting. I also consider whether or not the image can make a bold statement when stripped down to its essential elements. Consider this image of Utah’s Monument Valley, one of the most instantly recognizable destinations in all of America. I wanted to communicate a grand sense of scale, timelessness, and something of the open road. To do that, I set the road slightly off center, shot with a large depth of field, and pushed my viewers straight toward the mountains.


2. Focus on the Foreground
A good landscape image can be elevated to great with the inclusion of a foreground element—people, animals, buildings, or nearly anything else. It’s easy to get caught up in photographing a beautiful sunset or a majestic mountain range, and forget that so much of what gives a landscape context is the surroundings. Take this image for example; without the bison, it would have been a ho-hum photo of the Tetons. But by focusing on the animals in the foreground, I’m able to communicate more about this place; namely, the local residents, the sweeping terrain, and the grand mountain backdrop.


3. Look for Unusual Perspectives
While on a backcountry skiing trip in British Columbia, Canada, I was struggling to capture good images of my ski group; I was shooting them from behind and from the front, and wasn’t coming away with anything I liked. So I decided to let some of the group go on ahead, and as they came back around on the other side of a hill, I captured them on the move. The four skiers give the image gravity, and help tell a story about this beautiful place.


4. Incorporate Cultural Touchstones
What I like most about this image isn’t the soft sunrise light or the layers of trees in the background—it’s the Sri Lankan stick fishermen atop their teak poles. This kind of culturally specific element adds richness and depth to your travel landscapes. This image speaks to the beauty of Sri Lanka’s southern coast, the danger of fishing on the open ocean, and a craft that has nearly been forgotten by the modern world. Without the fishermen, this would have been just a pretty sunrise on the beach.


Tips for More Advanced Shooters:

5. Wait for Night to Fall
I love shooting images of starry night skies and have come up with a simple formula that you can apply to your own work. As in this image, I begin with a shutter speed of 30 seconds, which allows me to pull in enough light to light up the sky, but also keep the stars sharp. If you want to keep your stars sharp, remember to keep your shutter speed roughly equivalent to your focal length—if you’re shooting at 24mm, use a 24-second exposure. If you’re shooting at 50mm, use a 50-second exposure, and so on. Next, I adjust my ISO to 1600; Nikon cameras like the D7500 have no problem dealing with an ISO this high. And I lower my aperture as far as I can (f/2.8 in this case) to pull out as many stars as possible. Then I take a test exposure, and adjust (depending on darkness, foreground elements, or whatever else I see). Plus, I always try to focus on something in the foreground. Here, I was careful to focus on Wyoming’s Devils Tower, so it recorded as sharp as possible in my final image.


6. Experiment with Focal Lengths
Most landscape photographers do the bulk of their work with wide-angle lenses as they allow you to get close to your subject, and include plenty of background information at the same time. I shoot with wide lenses regularly, but also keep a long telephoto lens in my bag for special landscape scenes that call for something a little different. The temples of Bagan, Myanmar, certainly qualify as something different. I didn’t want just any image of the temples – I wanted something intimate, close, and warm. Shooting at 300mm, I compressed the distance between one temple and the next, and came away with a unique image of an often-photographed destination.


7. Elevate Yourself
Some of the most spectacular landscape images ever captured have been created from the sky, but you don’t need to ride in a helicopter, charter a plane, or take up skydiving to elevate yourself, or your images, to new heights. You simply need to keep an eye out for unique opportunities. I shot this image while trekking Exit Glacier, in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. A scene of climbers that was mildly interesting from ice level became a sweeping landscape once I decided to trek up and onto a rocky outcrop above them. Keep an eye out for unique vantage points—you never know where you might be able to perch.


Now we’re really flying: I shot this image while on a sightseeing flight over the island of Kauai. It can be difficult to shoot from a moving helicopter, but there are a few tips to keep in mind that will help you capture rewarding images. Use a circular polarizer over your lens; this will help you cut down on reflections from the thick glass of a helicopter or airplane. Dial in a fast shutter speed; I like to keep my shutter speed above 1/500 sec. when shooting from moving vehicles, just to make sure I minimize camera shake or any shake transmitted to my camera by the vehicle. And remember that you can use a larger aperture when you’re high in the air, as the distance between you and your subject is so great, nearly everything will be in focus.


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