Serene Life

by garik

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I've gotten pretty good at taking portraits, but that's usually when I shoot at large apertures (f/2.8 and wider). They're all taken with a 50mm f/1.4 prime and I've learned good composition at that focal length. I suppose they look "nice" because of the sharp contrast and isolation of the subject from the background. Not to mention the bokeh looks super cool :)

However, I'd like to learn how to move into some wider focal lengths and smaller apertures especially for landscapes. The widest I have is a 18mm (and I'm also on a APS-C camera) and I've been doing shots here and there of landscapes at f/5.6 and smaller. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to my portrait shots, the landscapes look "dead" and just not that exciting. Obviously, in landscapes, bokeh isn't really gonna help so how can I get better at taking wide angle photos?

Here are two sample photos:

  1. Canon 7D + 50mm f/1.4 USM (Shot at f/1.8) -- Looks exciting and "alive". Alive photo

  2. Canon 7D + 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (Shot at f/3.5) -- Looks a bit... dead and unexciting. Boring photo

Both shot with very similar lightning conditions (same day, bright sunlight, few clouds). Both processed in Aperture under "auto-enhance", only.

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My initial suggestion would be to find a better composition. Remember the rule of thirds, with regards to sky / land / objects in the scene. Make sure you're level too (I can see the 2nd shot above is not straight). Don't open too wide - f/16 max I'd say? Experiment with gradual ND filters perhaps. –  Mike Jun 19 '12 at 7:43
    
This comment is tangential to the question proper as I'm commenting on the first photo. Photo referenced below is original/change1/change2. Very very very roughly done just to provide illustration. This is very much a personal preference thing - if you like the thoughts that's good. If not, that's good too. Photo has a nice happy feel and subject obviously does it no harm. Absolutely no claim to merit per se. || Such shots are often spontaneous, but if you were able I'd have been tempted to try and add some more grass below and shrink target area generally - but that depends on how much ... –  Russell McMahon Jun 19 '12 at 8:07
    
... you want landscape as part of the scene. In the second change I rotated it not to get rotation effect per se but to allow targets to occupy more of frame. Dab of sky and grass added along diagonal. My eye-brain says that larger is better here - getting it near the diagonal and near the dread and avoid if one can do so well* "rule of thirds" is a bonus. Maybe. You are very very welcome to differ in opinion. Images here: i.stack.imgur.com/IcruT.jpg || –  Russell McMahon Jun 19 '12 at 8:18
    
* Personal opinion only - may be worth zilch: Rule of thirds is a good starting point or fall back position but if you can get a result that looks or feels good for some other reason, so much the better. –  Russell McMahon Jun 19 '12 at 8:19
    
possible duplicate of What makes a strong wide-angle composition? –  mattdm Jun 19 '12 at 11:02

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

While there are a lot of technical tips and tricks we can talk about, there really is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time (or "f/8 and be there" as the photojournalists used to say). There will be times when you just sort of stumble across the perfect landscape picture, but most of the time it's about getting to the place and waiting for conditions to be just right.

In your example, for instance, there are four distinct zones: the foreground hardwoods; the tops of the evergreens on the downslope of the hill at your feet; the "middle ground" (for want of a better word); and the far distance, which includes the sky and all of the land beyond the second ridge that is blue from haze. It's only the far distance that is easily distinguished from the others by tone and contrast -- everything else depends pretty much on size alone.

At a different time of day, you might find that the light striking each of the three nearer zones makes them more distinct from one another. You may find the trunks and branches of the foreground trees are either brightly lit or silhouetted, and that the broad leaves become a set of mirrors and blinds that add interest rather than being more-or-less the same green as all of the rest of the foliage. There is some colour contrast in your image, but particularly on the left, the foreground elements really get lost against the background. In general, early morning and late evening will tend to offer better light, but it's not always the case — you'd have to revisit the spot again and again to find the right moment. Sunrise, sunset and twilight will change everything, and may or may not be the right time of day for that scene — but you won't know until you've been there at that time of day. (A polarizing filter can help a lot with colour contrast. It's not just for beautiful blue skies.)

The time of year also makes a big difference, particularly with the hardwood foliage and the grasses. Late spring lends a riot of wildly different greens; autumn will certainly make the hardwoods significantly different from the evergreens.

We could also talk about composition. There is a strong argument to be made that your picture would have looked better had it been taken from a few feet to the right and a couple of steps closer to make the foreground trees more of a frame for the rest of the image. Or that you could have made the large, bare trunk on the right more of a focus of attention. Of course, since you were on a hill in the woods, that might have put you in mid-air over a deep ravine. Sometimes you have to take what's on offer — do the best you can in camera and plan for a crop. But do the best you can in camera first. Try not to settle for "good enough" until you proven to yourself that "excellent" isn't staring you in the face. Moving around just a little — sometime mere inches — can make a huge difference.

Good landscape photography tends to be about scouting, planning, and disappointment. You may find the perfect vista, but then it's a matter of being there at the right time of day at the right time of year and hoping that the weather cooperates. It's devilishly difficult to pose a landscape or to have the weather keep appointments. Keep your eyes open for "freebies" of course, but keep in mind that the camera won't feel your emotion. You'll probably find that capturing your reaction in a picture usually means waiting until things are exaggerated visually. And keep in mind that you may need things like filters and post-processing to finish the job.

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I think the fairly obvious answer here, is to have more interested stuff, closer to the lens. That is, for both the aperture question, and the wide angle question.

Let's recall the rule about aperture, the closer the subject, the more radical the effect. So if you really want to highlight the fact that you are shooting at a small aperture your "subject" should be closer to the lens.

Now, how can you make a landscape interesting with a small aperture? Well, from before we have that you should have your "subject" up close, but by nature(no pun intended) landscapes tend to be far away. We resolve these somewhat disparate desires by exactly what you mention: Bokeh. An example of how this can work is by having an "implied" landscape which is oof with a nice silky bokeh. Here is an example;

Silent Spring

For wide-angle, the same idea can be used to create a sense of scale. A wide-angle by definition is going to let a lot more into your frame, but unless you are very close to your subject, your subject will have difficulty filling the frame. In the case of scenery, this can lead to an overabundance of negative space in the sky, too much foreground, and in general harder composition. Again, by having something up close, the wide-angle can be used to contrast that which is big by foreshortening(or rather forlengthening) and that which is big by general enormity. Here is an example;

Hatched

I should mention that both shots also implement the other technique.

I used the same artist for both examples because he is my favorite Landscape artist. I am sure I could of found many other good examples elsewhere though.

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Note, I did not directly comment on your shots because you didn't ask for that. If that is what you wanted, then I misunderstood. –  BBischof Jun 19 '12 at 5:26
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We should also mention that these are HDR images in case @jp89 is wondering about the colour saturation, haloation surrounding the tree and the definition in the shadows and the intense clouds.... –  Jakub Jun 19 '12 at 15:19

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