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Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

March 21, 2014 Creativity 4 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

Are you consistently happy with your landscape photographs or are you always feeling you could have done better?

Most photographers can usually find an image to be proud of from every photo session but it’s those times when you have more images to be unhappy about that are cause for concern.

It’s natural to wonder what you might be doing wrong that spurs a search for answers. Careful examination of how you work when in the field might point to a number of different things but one that is quite consistent with bad images is how time is spent with the subjects.

Since we all want to make photographs that are masterpieces, here’s one thing that you can change today about how you create your images.  

The Key to Great Photographs Might be to Slow Down

I fondly remember the many years I photographed with my 4×5 view camera. It really has not been that long since I quit using it and went totally digital. Maybe 10 years.

I ran thousands of sheets of film through that camera and what I liked best was the amount of time spent on composing each image. That was due to the cumbersome nature of the 4×5, the amount of time it took to set it up, and for a hungry photographer: the high cost of each frame of film made me want to insure I had a great shot before pressing the shutter. I know I learned a lot from working with the 4×5, especially patience.

These days with the digital, photographers can come upon a scene, setup the tripod and camera, frame the picture, bracket like crazy, and then move to the next shot and all within minutes.  It is easy to become consumed, even overwhelmed by the scenery and then go ‘machine gun’ shooting fast and furious until the camera shutter starts to overheat.

Is volume helpful?

Shooting volumes and volumes of images is not a problem anymore. There is no cost to shooting 500 mb or 5 gb of images, unless you consider the time to wade through everything on the computer. The photographer can return to the computer and blends exposures, add or reduce contrast, paint in shadows and highlights, change skies, enhance colors, remove distractions, and create an image that might not have really existed.

What got me thinking about the idea here was that I did this very thing a few weeks ago. I landed in Petrified Forest National Park and was SO EXCITED to be back there. I set my camera to 5 stop auto bracketing (for exposure blending IF needed) and the drive to rapid fire so to shoot those brackets at lighting speed. Knowing I was only there for a little more than one day, I started to fill up that flash card fast. In some cases the resulting images were great and in many other shots, not so much. Probably half of what I shot was negligible at best. In my post shoot evaluation I determined I needed to spend more time in one spot and if the light was not perfect, move to another location where it was.

az petrified forest blue mesa MG 1701 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

In my exuberance to start shooting I captured this image, the first one of my day and it was captured at 1:30 pm. The light is not complimentary and it proved that the timing was poor for the Big Vista images.

I am not the only photographer who has done this. I have had many photographers shoot this way and even during my workshops.  As an example, when you take the time to look at images on G+, there are many mediocre images that have been heavily processed. Can this be a sign that ‘fixing it in Photoshop” is a widely practiced methodology to great imagery? Is there a belief that it’s better to grab a shot and then make it great in the digital darkroom?

During most of my 4×5 shooting days there was no digital darkroom when shooting with film, only the wet darkroom where you could make great things happen, but they were limited for the most part. For me the wet darkroom was used for fine tuning. The true image was captured in the field!

az petrified forest blue mesa MG 3841 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

Dropping down the trail to within the Blue Mesa area, I started to see ways to use the high light to my advantage and I spent time here at this location finding light that worked better.

az petrified forest giant logs MG 1775 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

Realizing how important late light was at Petrified Forest, I decided to go over to the Giant logs area and actually found the macro images taken in the shady side of the petrified logs was worth spending time on.

I consider myself quite competent in Photoshop and I do like compositing images, enhancing color, retouching out a distracting twig, but I LOVE my photography to look real. I was trained with film. A graduated neutral density filter was an AMAZING new tool when it came out and I used it as needed, bit only when IT WAS NEEDED.

I, like all of you, want to create amazing images. But my foray into Petrified Forest reminded me that:


My Petrified Forest excursion also reminded that more is not always better. It reminded that Photoshop cannot always fix it. It reminded me that just because HDR is an amazing tool, it does not make hard contrasty light coming from the wrong direction necessarily work. And I was most importantly reminded that slowing down and taking the time on each image will produce much better results.

az petrified forest crystal foorest MG 1999 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

I next headed over to the Crystal Forest and here I found volumes of great scenes and the light was getting better and it paid off to spend time to really work the scenes.

And best of all, it reminded me of what I already knew: the key for great landscape photography is to slow down and explore a scene for compositions that are striking and then work the subject in every way possible way.

The steps to better landscape images are:

  • Find a strong subject
  • Evaluate the light
  • Determine the best angle based on the subjects position and lighting at the time.
  • Determine the best camera height: should you get a little higher or get a little lower?
  • Work the subject and scene hard no matter how long it takes.

You will feel much more gratified if you worked hard on only one image, making you feel like you created a masterpiece.

az petrified forest MG 2100 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

Even after the sun sets, the party is not over. There was plenty of great details in the flat light that work well. Clearly the best images from the shoot were captured in the same area where I spent most of my time working the compositions.

So remember; great photographs are not about volume produced, but about quality!

Do you feel working to to fast is detrimental to creating quality images? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.


Related Posts: How to Add a Sense of Scale to Your Landscape Photographs, Photographing With A Purpose


out flash cover 300x219 Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Stratocaster says:

    Agree about taking your time. When I shot film, I would often plunk down at a spot I liked and wait for the light to change. Which annoyed my wife. I still do with digital, too.

    Last time I was in Petrified Forest, they were pretty dogmatic about booting all the visitors out at dusk to prevent the unscrupulous from pilfering the landscape, so the opportunities for early morning and late evening light were limited.

    Do you miss the flexibility of focusing with a view camera? Or do you still use one on occasion?

  2. I like the Orange, close-up shot the best. Would like to see the end shot. All my shots are in video mode. Keep up the great work!!! I’m busy buying houses to rent out, so far have three. Want 20. Have fun..

  3. admin says:

    Nothing has changed at PF. They open at sunrise and close at sunset so no getting in early to setup and wait, or staying late. They have an area to search cars, which I think they always have had, but nobody ever was in there during my visit. And I do miss the 4×5, quite a lot. But it was just not practical anymore. The film and processing was costly and the purpose to shoot with it disappeared for me. It was no longer cost effective for stock images once you added up film and processing and then very high resolution scans. Followed by a drop in print demand as everything moved online. But I do miss it!

  4. […] posts: Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs, Six Remarks on […]

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