LANDSCAPES and SEASCAPES

We are very fortunate in the British Isles to have some of the most varied landscape scenery in the world. We may not have the grandeur of the Alps, the Himalayas or the Grand Canyon, but the beauty of the British landscape is in its constantly changing character over relatively short distances.

It is a veritable cornucopia copiously created by the needs and industry of man over the past three centuries. Looking down from the air at the patchwork quilt below beautifully illustrates how in so much of the land man and nature have combined in perfect harmony.

For those of us living here we have a wonderful opportunity, without having to venture too far, to capture images of beauty almost on our doorstep.

For those in other countries you have your own distinctive and cherished landscapes often with far grander vistas from which to create your pictures. Wherever we are, in fact, the keen photographer has an inexhaustible supply of scenery with which to practice, develop and, in time, perfect the skills required in photography to interpret each landscape in his or her own way.

What we achieve and how we achieve it is largely subjective; we, the photographers, decide, in the majority of cases perhaps, to please just ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

But, if we are going to take a proper interest in what we do and, in fact, help towards capturing images which really do please us, then we need to bare in mind some important considerations.

Composition

There are some basic rules of composition which we should always keep in mind. That does not mean that they should be slavishly followed so long as we have a good reason for discarding them. If you are new to this subject I think you would be well advised to adhere to the rules until you have enough experience to know when it might be better to use your own judgement.

It can be a great help when composing your picture to use what is generally called the ‘rule of thirds’.

Imagine, when looking through your viewfinder, that the scene is divided into nine equal rectangles. Imagine a vertical line one third from the left and another line one third from the right. Then imagine a horizontal line one third from the top and another one third from the bottom. The four points where those lines intersect are generally considered to be the strongest points at which to place your main subject.

That is a very important ‘rule’ and, if followed, will be more than likely to produce a well balanced image that is pleasing to the eye. Some cameras provide the option of ‘hair lines’ in the viewfinder which can be a great help in locating your principal subject in the overall scene. This ‘rule’ is not just restricted to landscapes, of course, but can be applied to almost any image you may wish to capture.

The following image illustrates this point. The large boulder, placed about one third from the right adds some foreground interest and a feeling of balance to the scene.

Most landscape scenes will include part land and part sky. It is usually helpful to observe the ‘thirds rule’ here. Decide where most interest lies and allocate two thirds to it. Perhaps it’s a very interesting sky with unusual cloud formations which you would wish to dominate the scene; you would obviously give that the dominant role. Conversely, if most of the interest was in the landscape then the opposite would apply. Only use half and half if you are really convinced that that would be best in the circumstances with sufficient interest in both.

The following two pictures show examples of where a little sky was appropriate with all the interest in the scene on the lake and another where most of the interest was in the cloud formations.

There are many things to look out for when composing a picture, particularly a landscape, only experience will help you to see all the possibilities in any scene. After looking at the scene, look again through the viewfinder to concentrate only on the part of the view that will form the eventual image. It can help to have a small piece of cardboard with a rectangular cut-out which you can hold up to the scene and see more clearly. This will help you to see important features which will eventually appear in the picture.

Things to look out for may include lines, such as a ploughed field with the furrows perhaps leading to a tractor, or bends in a hedgerow or bridle path or winding lane which, again, may lead your eye to a point of interest. Look out for interesting shapes, S shapes, L shapes or triangles created by the natural contours of the ground. Such things may not be immediately obvious and need effort and concentration. Soon you will find yourself looking automatically at every landscape, whether with camera or not, and soon you will be taking better pictures.

The following is an example of using a winding path to lead the eye to a fountain in the distance.

Viewpoint

The most important thing here is: take your time, don’t be rushed.

The worst situation is to be driving along and stopping the car to see a fantastic view, but with the family in the car anxious to get home or on holiday and shouting to you to hurry up. If possible, it would be far better to come back later when you have more time. You need to compose yourself and the picture.

If there are many other people at the scene doing the same thing it’s usually better to ignore where they are standing and look around. You don’t want a picture the same as theirs, but better than theirs.

Sometimes, by just moving a few feet right or left, back or forward, can make a big difference to the final picture. But better still, look around you. Is there something you can incorporate in the foreground? Something, perhaps to ‘frame’ the scene. Perhaps a few branches adding interest against the sky. Anything you can find to add interest making the picture not just an ordinary view, however beautiful it may be, but an extra-ordinary view. Something that would stand out against all the others who hadn’t taken the trouble that you have.

There are two pictures here, one using fir trees as a ‘frame’ to view a lake and the other to view a garden through three arches. Taking the trouble to find the right spot, found by very few others, is one way to make your photographs special.

Placing the camera near the ground can sometimes be helpful incorporating some long grass or wild flowers in the foreground. Or, perhaps, a higher vantage point if that’s possible. Don’t forget, no one is restricting you to only one shot; take as many as you like and choose the best. With a digital camera, you can even delete those you don’t like if you are running short of space.

Depth-of-field

You may remember that depth-of-field refers to the amount of the image in front of the camera that is in sharp focus. And you may also remember that in order to make sure that everything in a landscape picture is in sharp focus it is necessary to use a small aperture, say f/11 or greater.

If you have managed to include some interesting foreground then you have to make sure that that also is in sharp focus. If the foreground is very close to the camera it may be necessary to use a little trick to ensure it is in focus.

The camera will, no doubt, have focussed automatically on infinity and most of the time this will be OK. If, however, it leaves the foreground out-of-focus, then try this to rectify the situation. Switch the camera to manual focus, if you have that facility, and turn the lens back from infinity until the foreground comes into focus. With a small aperture, the far distance will still be in focus and your problem will be solved. If you are not able to change the camera to manual focus, then move further back until the foreground feature you wish to include in the scene comes into focus. Alternatively, if your camera has a higher f. number, then set it to the highest which may then solve the problem.

The yellow gorse in the next picture was the most important part and had to be in focus. But I also wanted the mountains in the far distance to be clear too; a small aperture was the answer.

Small apertures, of course, require slower shutter speeds and therefore it is important to keep an eye on the shutter speed setting, particularly if it is a dull day, to make sure it does not go below 1/60 sec. or 1/30 sec. if you are very careful. Anything slower than this means you will need to support the camera either on a tripod or perhaps a nearby wall.

Exposure

With modern digital cameras the camera takes care of the exposure automatically and in the majority of cases you don’t need to worry about it. However, sometimes there is a great deal of contrast with bright sunlight in some areas and dark shadows in others. Even then the camera may find a satisfactory average.

Many cameras, however, have the facility to calculate the exposure at a particular spot of your choosing. If so, then in high contrast conditions make sure that the spot exposure area is aiming at an area of average brightness before exposure.

However, there may be occasions when, for dramatic effect, you wish to expose for the brighter or darker areas leaving one or the other either over or under exposed. In which case I suggest that you take several pictures at various settings and choose the one which you find most pleasing.

I was quite pleased with the following, which gave me an interesting sky with trees in silhouette.

Time of Day

Finally, there is another very important consideration if you want to get the very best out of a particular landscape: time of day.

Without doubt, in the majority of cases, the best time to capture most landscapes is either early morning, just after sunrise, or late evening, a short while before sunset. And the reason for that is that the low level of the sun casts interesting shadows across the scene picking out the contours of the ground which may not be noticed at any other time of day.

The worst time to take a landscape photograph is likely to be mid-day, with the sun high in the sky. Most of the undulations will be lost and, by comparison, the picture is likely to look rather flat and uninteresting.

Don’t forget, you are trying to take a picture which will be extraordinary not just ordinary like everybody else and if you follow these simple guidelines, then you’re more than half way there. The rest will depend on your own interpretation and growing experience. Keep your camera with you; there’s no substitute for practice.

Seascapes

Much of what has been said about landscapes applies equally to seascapes.

The sea tends to show its ‘moods’ more than a landscape because it reflects the sky thus emphasising the general mood on any particular day or time of day.

There is often much more movement in images of the sea especially on windy days among a rocky shoreline and an incoming tide. The effect of foam and spray crashing onto the rocks can be very dramatic creating a lively scene. Don’t set the shutter speed too fast so that it ‘freezes’ the sea; a slower shutter speed will slightly blur the spray emphasising the feeling of movement bringing life into the image.

The same applies to waterfalls or fast-running rivers and streams with the water rushing over rocks where, again, a slight blurring effect brings the water to life. Here are two examples:

Finally, before taking the picture, either of a landscape or seascape, decide on the best format. Should it be a ‘landscape’ format or an upright ‘portrait’ format?

Most landscapes are, of course, taken in the ‘landscape’ format for the obvious reason that you are usually looking at a wide scene before you. But if, perhaps, you are looking down a steep valley with high-rise mountains either side, then an upright format may be the obvious one to choose.

Or, perhaps, a high but narrow waterfall would, no doubt, show it off to best advantage with an upright image. There are two examples of that above. If in doubt, take both!

Now, pick up that camera and venture forth to create your own portfolio of the scenery around you, wherever you may be.