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In search of landscape subjects

National parks provide outstanding landscape scenes
National parks provide outstanding landscape scenes

The first step in landscape photography is choosing an interesting subject, and there is no shortage of them out there. It is not easy to provide recommendations for locating landscape subjects since a scene that has instant appeal to one photographer may say nothing to another. You must all do your own looking for scenes that appeal to you. We can provide search hints, though, that apply to all photographers, particularly the beginner who sets out for the first time, and even the second.

After you have been out and successfully found and photographed good subjects by applying these hints, you will feel more comfortable and confident, and your technique will become second-nature to you.

Good landscape pictures are not a matter of chance, although luck is sometimes involved and you are usually glad when you have it. Follow the principles of composition when you come across a scene that may provide a good image. (See our section on Composition.) Think of balance in the scene’s elements. Consider the direction of the light, and what time of day would be best to shoot it. Think of the kind of light that will be most suitable - bright sunshine or the soft light from an overcast sky. (Our section on Light and the landscape may be of help.)


1. Keep your antennae up whenever you are outdoors, even when you do not have your camera with you. Look at scenes you come across from a photographer’s perspective, and return with your camera when you think you have found a good subject.

2. Old-time landscape artists often carried a frame to use as a viewfinder to aid in locating subjects. Follow their lead, and use your camera’s viewfinder frequently as you are assessing a scene’s potential.

3. Small pocket-size binoculars can be a help if you are overlooking a wide vista that may have several subject opportunities. The binoculars will bring the details closer which might otherwise go unnoticed, and save you from a good deal of hiking. Binoculars, however, show a telescopic view of a scene (often far more magnified than you will get with even your longest telephoto lens) and a scene’s composition may look quite different when you actually approach closer to it.

4. Many good landscapes are shot on the second or even third attempt. What does this mean? Assume you've taken what you thought would be a good shot, but discover flaws that could have been avoided when you look at the image on your digital camera's display, or later on your computer's monitor or when you see the printed image or slide. The problem may be the direction of the light, an unsightly object you didn’t notice in the scene but that jumps out at you in the photograph, or any other deficiency. You will be tempted to go back and shoot it again without the flaws, particularly if the subject has great potential. This “trial-and-error” approach can produce a great landscape, but you must be careful to know when to draw the line and move on to something new. Trying to get the perfect landscape scene of a particular vista can haunt for you for years. Don't let it. Photography is meant to be fun.

There's often no one at the beach in early morning
There's often no one at the beach in early morning

 You may find inspiration on a scenic cruise
You may find inspiration on a scenic cruise

5. In bright sunlight, the lighting rule of thumb many good landscape photographers follow is to keep the sun at your side or facing you. The old “keep the sun at your back” suggestion is like illuminating the scene with an enormous spotlight directly behind you, and tends to flatten out the scene, eliminating its three-dimensionality.

6. Don’t just go out on sunny days. Good landscape photography is not at all dependent on sunny weather. Conduct your search for subjects when it is overcast, misty or in any weather conditions.

7. Look for a composition with few colors and distinct forms. Too many flashy bright colors will be distracting and discordant.

8. Be creative in your search. Go off the beaten path, especially if you are looking at a scene that has been photographed often from the same vantage point.

9. If you have no choice but to remain in the popular vantage point that most people use to photograph a particular scene, look for a different angle to capture the scene in a way that others haven't viewed it before, or shoot it during weather conditions that make the scene unusual.

10. Visit naturally-beautiful places. Don't look for gorgeous landscapes at your local landfill; go to places of known beauty, such as spots where the tourists who visit your area are encouraged to go.

11. Look for landscape scenes where others don't see them. A neighborhood park may, for example, have a scenic nook that photographs beautifully when the light hits it at a certain angle, or a nearby golf course may look awesome in the misty light of dawn when no one is there to play on it.

You don't need brilliant sunshine in every landscape.  Photo courtesy of Karen Meeks.
You don't need brilliant sunshine in every landscape. Photo courtesy of Karen Meeks.

A desert scene that may normally be dull can become a place of beauty in springtime.
A desert scene that may normally be dull can become a place of beauty in springtime.

12. Consider what the elemental components of most successful landscape pictures are, then seek them out in the places you visit. Does some place you know have a winding stream, rapids, a mountain backdrop, a waterfall, a solitary pine tree, a wide meadow, a massive rock face, etc.? Visit places that you know have one or more of these elements to assess whether a good landscape photograph can be made by including them in your picture as the main element or center of interest. You may be surprised how a normally mundane place can be transformed into a lovely landscape picture by viewing it creatively through a camera.

13. Keep the seasons in mind. A fading green mountain meadow in early fall may have been a riot of color when its spring wildflowers were in bloom. A drab desert scene may become an artist's pallet in the desert's brief rainy season. An innocuous scene in summer may be nature's pride when covered with snow. And of course the colors of autumn can transform a mountainside of uniform green into a quilter's nightmare of different colors. Timing, including being there in the right season, is a big factor in selecting landscape subjects.

A word of caution.

You may come upon a scene that excites you with its beauty or its renown, like this Grand Canyon vista. You want to shoot it right away, and may not take the time to consider some aspects of proper composition, such as where your shadow falls.

In this example on the right, the photographer's shadow can clearly be seen. A definite no-no. Take your time. Be sure to carefully examine the scene in the viewframe for the presence of telephone poles, wires and other objects that appear unsuitable or unnatural, like your own shadow.

One object you don't wish to photograph in a landscape is your shadow.
One object you don't wish to photograph in a landscape is your shadow.
Further information...

Lighthouses by Marcia Keefer