an early snow makes for a unique fall color photo

A Simple Trick to Improve your Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is one of the purest forms of nature photography and is as enjoyable, captivating, and breathtaking as ever.  While cameras, lenses, and editing programs improve, the ability to capture lights, contrasts, and color constantly evolves.

However, as the tech improves, the raw elements of your landscape photo come into critical importance. That is, the content of your photo…what is included in your photo and how do the elements complement each other to create a photo that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

If you want to instantly elevate your landscape photography from here on out, continue reading and you will love the outcome.

a sun sets behind the horizon in the arctic while spruce trees catch the last glimpse of light

Start to include a foreground element

A foreground element, aka a “subject”, will take your landscape photos to another level. And we are often presented with multiple options to choose from when it comes to what this element actually is.

Shall we feature a person?  Perhaps there is a nice tree or small patch of vibrant wildflowers?

The possibilities are extensive, and you need not overthink it to begin practicing this technique.

an alaska rail engine parked near the spencer glacier whistle stop in alaska

And the steps are simple…

Upon finding yourself in an extraordinary landscape, immediately begin looking for something unique, individual, and set apart from the rest of the scene.  In the above photo I chose to incorporate the train and its tracks, rather than omit them, as they offered a unique foreground element to the snow-capped range in the background.

It doesn’t have to be right in front of you…it can be a ways away, but it should indeed be distinct in the scene to count as a subject or foreground element.

Take a look at the below photo–although the two huts are not close to me (I shot this with a telephoto lens), they offer a foreground element to provide some scale, context, and story to the rest fo the landscape photo of this watery jungle scene.

An intriguing photo of khao sok national park with fishing village in the foreground

Taking it a step further

The next step is to then see past this foreground object and analyze the background in context to this foreground element.

Ask yourself, from where you are standing, is the background as good as it can be?  Or, if you move to your left or right slightly (while keeping the foreground element in your scene, of course) does the background change for the better?

a canvas tent sits in the desert with sun setting

In the above photo, I moved myself to perfectly place the setting sun at the base of the tent.

We often see that the quality of the photo can improve markedly when you do move a little, like when a beautiful wildflower is in front of the towering peaks of Glacier National Park, or a small chalet centered in front of the Alps of Switzerland or perhaps a particular tree positioned right in front of the sand dunes of Namibia.

a photograph from the floor of the dead vlei in the namib desert

By pivoting slightly we may be able to improve how the foreground element works with the background.  Is it centered, slightly askew, or perhaps overlaying on top of it?  There is no perfect or one way to do this…the point is that you can improve your photo with minimal extra work by asking yourself what the resulting photo would look like if you moved slightly to realign the foreground and background.

A final consideration

A final way to improve on this simple “add a foreground element” tactic is to think about how close you are to the foreground element. Not only does this have an impact on the composition of your photo, but it has a lot to do with the kind of depth of field you will be able to achieve.

Simply put, the closer you are to the foreground element, the more your background will be blurred.  In some cases, this can yield a pleasing blur, known as a bokeh. This is a common practice in wildlife and portraiture photography.

However, for landscape photography, we generally want to minimize the background blur, as the background is often the main feature of the photo, with the foreground simply a lovely accessory.

In the below photo, we want the distant sandstone wall in focus, as well as the person, so we are careful to not be too close to the person, or else the background could become blurry.

a traveler stares out at the main Zion Canyon from an overlook

Thus, you may want to consider moving further away from the foreground element as a way of ensuring both it and your background stay in focus with an average aperture rating (like f/8 or f/11).  Even with a big f/number like f/22, being super close to your foreground will result in a still-blurred background.

Of course there are limits to how much you can finagle all this.

You can’t necessarily move left, right, forward, or back in some cases due to the terrain.  You might have to just deal with what you’ve got.  But that’s fine!  Work with it however you can.

In those cases where you do have some flexibility, though, it’s a vital life lesson in photography that you can pick your foreground and background to improve your photo.  It’s all about training your eye and brain to seek, and see the opportunities as they arise in the field.

I hope this helps next time you are out on a photo adventure in front of our planet’s glorious landscapes!


Court Whelan Signature