When we’re taking landscape photography, we get inspired by light, land or a fleeting moment. But what makes fine art landscape photography unique isn’t found in the scenery. Artistic photography is found within.
To me, fine art landscape photography is the quintessential way of showing who you are as a photographer.
Teaching you what fine art landscape photography is and how you can take better pictures with that knowledge is important to me. I simply love to see new and interesting photography with a personal flair.
In this article, I invite you to embrace photography as a form of art. Instead of specific instructions on how to achieve a certain look, these 10 tips will show you how to be a better artist through fine art photography.
What Is Fine Art Photography?
Guy Tal summarises fine art brilliantly by saying that your photos should be about things, not of things.
Fine art landscape photography is the way you document the land. It’s about the connection between you as a photographer and the landscape you’re in.
Therefore, your vision as an artist is fundamental to creating original photos. It is important to note that creating art is a cognitive process.
Galen Rowell was one of the proponents of pre-visualising an image before pressing the shutter. Apart from a vague, reverse image on the ground glass, this is the only way to know how your image will look with film photography.
In the digital age, pre-visualisation is very under-appreciated. We tend to look at our images after we shoot them and adjust accordingly. The goal of fine art landscape photography is to have an idea of what your images will look like in the end.
Ask yourself questions like: “What do I want to show in this image” and “How does this composition make me feel?” Then, dial in the camera settings that will add to your answers.
If you feel gloomy or sad, you could help the image by making it a bit darker. Add some negative exposure compensation in your camera’s Aperture Priority mode or shorten the shutter speed in Manual mode.
Creating darker images makes the viewer tap into darker emotions as well.
Colour and Processing
Another great tool for putting emotion in your fine art landscape photography is colour. Control the overall colour of the image with the white balance setting of your camera, and don’t be afraid of a bit of colour cast. Photos don’t always have to be neutral. Bright and warm colours can really add energy and an overall positive feeling.
Keep in mind that pictures that warm colours demand attention, whereas cooler tones are easier on the brain.
Also keep post-processing in mind before you even press the shutter. Look through the viewfinder and think out loud about what you want to do to an image.
Do you want to darken the sky or lift the shadows? Are there distracting elements you would rather not have, but cannot omit by slightly altering the composition?
2. Story Telling
Fine art photography should be about things. A great tool for storytelling is to show relationships within your art. A small sapling tree in the foreground set against a dead tree in the background for instance, could tell a story of renewal, rebirth or the fact that nature will conquer all.
It doesn’t always have to be a complex or far-fetched story. I can imagine that it is quite difficult to tell stories when you don’t have a background in either fine arts or photography. Start simple with these three tips:
- A longer shutter speed can suggest movement in grass, waves and clouds.
- A larger aperture can suggest depth because of the reduced depth-of-field.
- A motionless subject against a rushing background can evoke chaos and solitude.
Once you get the hang of those, you could try your hand at telling a story through multiple landscape photographs.
Show the development of a storm, a change of seasons, the same landscape with or without snow or what a forest fire has done to your local woodland.
3. Show the Unexpected
Oftentimes I wonder how the greatest photographers among us keep coming up with interesting subjects and compositions within fine art photography.
Originality is often closer than you think. Pull up a map of your local area. Look for a spot that’s interesting geographically. Preferably a spot with some elevation differences, a water feature or a small woodland.
Topographical maps help me when I’m entering unfamiliar territory. A great online tool that you can use is OpenTopoMap.
Venture to places where others haven’t been, or show subjects that other photographers have not. Original artwork can surprise and delight us because it activates a part of the brain that is specifically linked to novelty.
According to a 2006 study led by neurobiologists Bunzeck and Düzel, a central part of the brain called SN/VTA responds heavily to novel stimuli. The study shows that we tend to get more excited by unfamiliar beauty than beautiful pictures of well-known subjects.
It’s no wonder that it’s hard to win a landscape photography contest with the millionth image of Kirkjufell.
4. Practice With Telephoto Lenses
Because you’re zooming in on particular areas in an otherwise wide-open space, you’re essentially deciding what you want to show the viewer. Telephoto lenses are a great tool to help you look at the landscape differently.
Patterns and shapes start to come alive when you have a more intimate view of the landscape.
Imagine having your telephoto lens attached and that your camera is on a tripod, pointing down towards a bed of leaves.
One trick that I suggest you try, is to very slightly move the camera around using a ball-head on your tripod. Even the tiniest adjustment in pan, tilt or rotation will have significant results in your composition.
Practicing with a telelens will teach you to pay close attention to composition and any distracting elements along the edges of a photograph. But you don’t always have to be close to your subject to create fine-art landscape images.
Among my favourite subjects are those misty mountain shots. With a focal length of 300 mm or more, I love the way crevices and corries fill the frame.
And with some birds, soft morning light and a flurry of clouds along the summit, it’s a recipe for great fine-art photography.
5. Never Be Afraid of Post-Processing Landscapes
I have a strong opinion that post-processing is an inextricable part of fine-art photography. Don’t think of post-processing like trickery or faking it. Treat post-processing like a tool for realizing your vision and amazing things will come from your photography.
If you struggle with the right amount of a particular effect, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to the work of photographers you admire. Good post-processing is where taste and skill join together in harmony.
When you start out with photography, editing your images can be daunting. There are many settings, sliders and effects that you can choose from.
I always start by asking myself: “What was I thinking about when I took this image?” and take it from there.
One of the most powerful tools that you can use are curves.
To get your feet wet with curves, experiment with two points along the curve. The two points that are already there are called the White Point (top right) and the Black Point (bottom left).
Those control how much white or black is allowed in the image. Right in the centre there’s the Midpoint. Click in the centre of the curve and drag it down to darken the mid-tones of the image.
Adding two points along the line, with the first one darkening the image and the second one brightening it, will add contrast to your shot and deepen the colours.
While this S-shaped curve is by far the most utilized curve in landscape photography, I generally stay away from it. Instead, I like to be a bit more creative and add multiple points along the curve to bring out detail where it’s needed.
6. Seascapes: Practice With Nothing Before Photographing Something
One subject that’s fantastic for training the laws of composition is the sea. And you don’t need fancy filters to start out with seascape photography. A sturdy tripod along with the photography equipment you already have will do.
It’s a good idea to wait for the sunset before shooting seascapes. Blue hour is the best time of day to learn to drag your shutter speed. The natural low-light conditions at twilight also add to the atmosphere of the shot and you can teach yourself long exposure photography on a budget.
With long exposure seascape photography, pay close attention to the lines in the water, along with any more static objects such as the position of the horizon in the frame, rocks and seaweed.
It’s essential to practice this with as little subject matter as possible. Eliminate everything that’s not needed. A single, small stone might be enough to create a fine art photograph with impact.
7. Black and White Landscape Photography: It’s all About Luminosity
One overlooked sub genre of the modern day landscape photographer is monochrome or black and white landscape photography.
Because social media ratings seem to be more important than meaningful images these days, blazing sunsets are all the rage at the moment.
Remember that all photography started without colour. In fact, world-renowned landscape photographers kept shooting in black and white, even as colour photography started to become more readily available.
Minor White, Philip Hyde and Ansel Adams were all keen users of black and white film. And if you browse around their archives, certain things become very apparent in their images.
Using Gestalt Principles
- Shape and form – With colour gone, it’s the shapes that keep us looking. Diagonals are suggestive of speed, while curves and wavy lines make us look longer at that spot.
- Contrast – High contrast suggests harsh lighting and little distance between viewer and subject, whereas low contrast suggests that the subject is far away from us.
- Proximity – Two subjects that are close suggest a relation to each other.
- Similarity – That which is similar to something we know evokes a sense of recognition and association within us, aside from two subjects that look alike to show their connection.
- Symmetry – A patch of snow on the ground and a cloud in the sky that share their inverse shape, strengthens both their bond and their separation.
- Closure – One line that seemingly continues, can tie two separate subjects together. A dead tree that points at the edge of a mountain is a good example of this.
Within the realm of post-processing, you can make targeted adjustments based on how bright or how dark an image is. Tony Kuyper’s Actions are among the most utilized in landscape photography today. With them, selecting the shadows without the darkest of blacks or any highlights is as simple as the press of a button.
With those selections, you could do all sorts of editing wizardry. Making shadows brighter or darker is just the tip of the iceberg.
8. Use Negative Space to Create Visual Breathing Room
Negative space will strengthen the positive space. In other words: empty parts of the photography will emphasise your subject.
Try it yourself by allowing a big part of your photo for the sky, or experiment with placing your subject further to the left or right.
Notice that the emptier the photo, the more abstract it becomes. You could potentially shoot an image of visual nothingness and make a single subject stand out.
A tree among endless snow is a bit of a tried and tested usage, but the subjects are endless.
9. Don’t Neglect the Small
One of the things that I’ve learned from personal experience is that most of us are on the hunt for those trophy shots. But even on your way to those once-in-a-lifetime locations, there are countless photographic opportunities that await.
The icons in landscape photography are those where entire busloads of expensive camera equipment get unloaded multiple times a day. Every day.
When I visit these locations with a group, I instruct them to pay attention to things along the way that can offset your photography against a multitude of photos with exactly the same composition.
Whether it be a lone flower, a strange looking ice formation or even another photographer who is composing the usual shot. Such images invoke both recognition and novelty and are often quite powerful.
Originality is often closer than you think; even at these well photographed areas. So next time you’re at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona or Skógafoss in Iceland, try to look for foreground subject matter that’s different or temporary.
Composing the temporary versus the timeless is another great tool in your arsenal of photographic knowledge.
A couple of inspirational photographers of intimate landscapes are Bruce Omori, Alex Noriega and Guy Tal. Have a look around on their websites for photography inspiration on patterns in the landscape.
For many, photography is a form of collection. However, building a catalog of visual memories isn’t what fine art photography is about. It is very much about the chase of perfection. Simon Baxter teaches about persisting in his insightful landscape photography videos.
Consider returning to the same subject in different conditions when the light or the season aren’t fitting the subject. If you’re out scouting with your camera, it takes both an intrinsic drive and persistence to come back later when the light is better. Even when it means getting up at 4 AM.
It’s not a bad idea to shoot a quick photo of a composition you have in mind, but don’t spend too much time doing so. Baxter regularly uses his phone to do these quick and dirty snapshots.
We’ve covered varying subjects that hopefully contribute to making you a more keen observer and a better photographer. But before I leave you to put all this in practice, I’ll take a quick moment to summarise the most important points.
- Ask yourself questions. Out loud if you have to. Opening up an internal dialogue about your photos will make you critical and observant.
- Pay attention to the smaller things around you. If you’ve found the mountain you want to photograph, think about how you want proceed and what foreground subject would best match your story.
- Less really is more. Practice with negative space and gradually see that your images will become more powerful.
- Practice with composition in black and white, because splitting brightness and color can make the rules of composition more easily digestible.
- Don’t be afraid. Experiment, go to places where no-one has and spend time to learn the ropes of post-processing your images. And don’t be afraid to show as little as possible.
Now, why not check out our creative landscape tips or fine art landscape photography posts too!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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